This may be their debut album, but the LA synth-pop duo Magdalena Bay already commandeer their own cinematic universe: Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin are big on TikTok and Twitch; they have alter egos and in-jokes with their avid online fan communities. If this sounds parodically contemporary, it may help their case (or perhaps not) to know that the pair, who met in high school, initially traded in Yes-inspired prog rock. A revelation courtesy of Chairlift, Charli XCX and Grimes pushed them towards poolside pop that mingles seductive charm with a captivatingly nihilistic edge.
Happily, Mercurial World stands independently of their virtual offering. The influence of Grimes is especially evident, although it cleaves more closely to yacht-pop than Claire Boucher’s intergalactic concerns. Tenenbaum’s vocals are similarly wraithlike and vaporous, and so her punches land with stealth – when they’re given space, on an album that’s often overproduced. The great chorus to You Lose! is a vindictive cheerleader sing-song doused in static; Domino, however, is an indistinct avalanche of yelps, coos and grinding guitar.
More than the pop avant garde, however, Mercurial World frequently sounds like the sunbaked, flirty disco of millennium-era Kylie Minogue: Secrets (Your Fire) and Hysterical Us have the sultry groove of a sunbaked Spinning Around. That tension between sweetness and distortion lurches across the album, coming together best in Chaeri, a gothic house devotional to a destitute friend. Tenenbaum seems to writhe through her agonies as she wonders whether she could have done more. The droning undertow builds to a starry climax that absorbs on a purely visceral level.