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Welcome to Magdalena Bay’s Expanding Cinematic Pop Universe. You’ll Never Want to Leave.

Beam us up. Photo: Magdalena Bay/YouTube

Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin, the duo behind the atmospheric, intoxicating synthpop of Magdalena Bay, remember the moment their debut album clicked into place. One day in mid-2020, driving from Yosemite National Park back home to Los Angeles, the pair listed all the songs they’d written for it so far, along with the themes for each. By this point, after releasing a string of singles and EPs, they had decided to start from scratch on their full-length, beginning to write once the COVID-19 pandemic cut their first-ever tour short after just one show. They hadn’t set out to make an album about a single idea, but looking over their notes in that car, they noticed a pattern forming: these were songs about watching time pass and being overwhelmed by the universe. “Our subconscious just had a weird thing going on,” Tenenbaum tells me over a video call with Lewin from their L.A. home. “A lot of it came together naturally along the way.”

That album, Mercurial World, arrived in October as one of 2021’s best pop statements a strong distillation of where the genre is at the moment, bridging the experiments of the increasingly influential left-of-center scene with pop-star ambitions and hooks. At one level, it is the concept album about time that Tenenbaum and Lewin realized they were making last year, built around a theory that sounds like it was workshopped during a late, stoned night: “If there’s nothingness before you’re born and nothingness after you die, it creates kind of a meeting point here, and life creates the circle of what goes around that, so in that way, there is no end,” Tenenbaum explains, paraphrasing her lines on the album’s cheekily titled opening track, “The End.” But the genius lies in Magdalena Bay’s ability to avoid weighing down Mercurial World with its own concept. The resulting album is a collection of affecting and dynamic pop songs that lose nothing even when divorced from their galaxy-brained underpinnings.

Tenenbaum and Lewin are used to nerding out in their music. They began playing music together as high-school students in Miami, forming a progressive rock band called Tabula Rasa. After two under-the-radar albums, complete with requisite instrumental interludes and 20-minute epic closer, the band broke up once the members went off to college. While attending schools in different states, Tenenbaum and Lewin decided to rekindle their partnership, with a different goal: to make pop music. Their palette had evolved beyond prog — “I hope most people don’t only listen to the same things they’ve been listening to in high school; it’s probably not healthy,” Lewin jokes — and they found pop music exciting, especially the radio outliers. (Their former band members grew similarly; Tabula Rasa’s drummer, Nick Villa, has performed with Magdalena Bay and was staying with the duo in L.A. during this interview.) So they took a studious approach and began to listen their way through pop history, tracing their way from Madonna in the 1980s to Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani in the 2000s to the stuff they were latching onto in the mid-2010s, like Grimes and Chairlift. “We were like, Oh my God, first of all, this is so much harder to write than anything else in the world,” Tenenbaum remembers. “It takes this level of precision that’s so difficult to get to.”

And yet Mercurial World reaches that point — every element of the music feels intricately arranged, from synth sparkles to drum kicks. Its masterclass is the slow-burning lead single, “Chaeri,” on which Magdalena Bay gradually up the stakes of a steady four-on-the-floor beat with each additional synth line until that beat just bursts. Guitars and synths float across the groovy “Secrets (Your Fire)” like shooting stars; video-game-sounding pings and blips and Tenenbaum’s faux-vocaloid singing envelop “Follow the Leader” in a cloud of digital haze. Even more than developing their technical skills, digging into pop music gave Tenenbaum and Lewin a deep love and appreciation for the form, which in turn gives Mercurial World its pulse. As much as they enjoy pop tropes and references, though (the title track features a requisite callback to “Material Girl”), none of the songs read as pastiche. “I think at this point, we’ve taken our influences and processed them and then, hopefully, turned them into something that we feel is more representative of ourselves and of our own vision, creatively,” Lewin says. Their songs are like constellations, taking distinct points and making something out of the space in between — as on “Hysterical Us,” a standout that finds the duo skating effortlessly between disco, bubblegum pop, and synth-rock without quite resembling any of those genres.

Tenenbaum and Lewin simply aren’t interested in being pinned down. “I think we’re still, every day, figuring out what Magdalena Bay sounds like,” Lewin adds. “What Magdalena Bay is, really.” He compares it to “an ever-expanding universe,” with himself and Tenenbaum as its center of gravity — “sucking in different stuff and building new planets or whatever,” as Tenenbaum puts it. Lately, that project has extended to the band’s theatrical live show, which they’ll bring to life next February and March on their just-announced Mercurial Tour, headlining cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco for the first time.

Keeping things rotating in whichever direction feels natural is a mind-set that applies to more than just Magdalena Bay’s sound. The duo has become equally known for a visual aesthetic inspired by the lo-fi hodgepodge of the early internet, paired with a correspondingly offbeat sense of humor. It’s been a hallmark of their homespun music videos for years; lately, they’ve translated it to a must-follow TikTok account and promotional antics for Mercurial World, like a Galaga-inspired game that streamed their single “You Lose!” Tenenbaum and Lewin name Adult Swim (particularly Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) and David Lynch’s sense of humor as influences, but admit, in unison, that they’re “not comedians” or trying to be with their social strategy. “And we don’t want to pretend to be,” Tenenbaum adds. More than humor, it comes down to establishing a discernible identity and community as it’s becoming almost a requirement for musicians to be extremely online. And the duo has played that game well: When they noticed their single “Killshot,” off the 2020 EP A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling, was being used for anime fancams, they quickly pivoted and released a slowed and reverb mix.

Magdalena Bay is the latest in a recent movement of explicitly heartfelt synthpop, following Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Caroline Polachek in gilding vulnerable, emotional professions with synthesizers and drum beats. But possibly more than any of those musicians, sincerity has become central to the appeal of Magdalena Bay. The duo’s lyrics zone in on familiar feelings — being in love, worrying about a friend, stressing about the future — with unguarded, cutting simplicity. “Dreamcatching” is an uncomplicated song about wanting to travel the world with a lover; it’s also one of the most moving songs on the album, carried by Tenenbaum’s uniquely expressive soprano (effective both at a gentle whisper and an explosive shout) delivering such a desire so earnestly and openly.

To a newcomer, it can feel like there’s a dissonance between the sincerity of Magdalena Bay’s best songs and the obsessively online playfulness of their Twitter and TikTok. To Magdalena Bay, that’s just part of the game. Lewin sees a similar duality in Lynch’s filmography, which the duo consumed heavily during the making of Mercurial World. (Twin Peaks even gave them a bit of TikTok inspiration.) “There is sincere, emotional stuff there, but there is also this layer of like, How ironic is this? And I like that obscure thing, where you never really are quite sure,” he says. “I don’t think any of that is not genuine, but it’s more like an aesthetic choice.”

Mercurial World ends with a song that bridges both sensibilities. “The Beginning” closes the loop that “The End” began with a spirited curtain call. It caps off the album on a note of optimism by turning away from Mercurial World’s concerns with the future and the past to focus on the present. In the chorus, which practically begs for a live singalong, Tenenbaum chants, “So if you feel low, sit back, enjoy the show!” That could read as a cheap send-off to the rest of the album’s messaging, but as ever with Magdalena Bay, there’s something larger at play. “On some level, it’s about us discovering and falling in love with pop,” Tenenbaum explains. After opening the album worried about a looming end, she and Lewin conclude it by realizing they have “made this moment eternal.” “It’s like the music itself becomes the answer to the question,” she adds. Good pop has always strived to use music to make moments last forever, from Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” Mercurial World welcomes Magdalena Bay to that tradition.

Welcome to Magdalena Bay’s Expanding Cinematic Pop Universe