As soon as I heard Art School Girlfriend, I knew that I was on to a winner. Standing in a field in Wales in the middle of the day, working on a hangover by cracking open a can of something with an awful name like Ghost Ship or Pig’s Blood, I watched as Polly Mackey took to the stage with her guitar in hand and immediately launched into some sumptuous, dreamy indie in vein of Daughter and The xx. I was sold. Midday might seem early for synths to some, but as I moved towards the stage and leant on the railings I felt the music sooth my weary head and prepare me for another day.
I saw her perform with her band a few weeks later, too, supporting Marika Hackman at Band on the Wall in Manchester. I left that show with a copy of one of her early EPs on record and a feeling that I’d discovered an artist I’d be listening to for years to come. Then, of course, the pandemic hit. It seemed, to me at least, that Art School Girlfriend were just working up a whole heap of momentum as we moved into 2020 – but like many other musical acts, things went quiet. I forgot that I was waiting to hear more Art School Girlfriend music.
Is It Light Where You Are, therefore, kind of snuck up on me. It seems to have been released with minimal fanfare and maybe only those who were lucky enough to catch Mackey in that period of momentum have been fully aware of its arrival. Obviously, I have no real idea of how the pandemic affected her plans, but it does seem that in the time between those gigs and this release she has honed her sound and created something more complete and cohesive. The tracks on this album meld perfectly together in a tracklist that seems seamless and effortless. And, in many ways, the album seems to be structured much as an Art School Girlfriend gig should be – opening with the haunting and entrancing ‘In The Middle’, Mackey immediately draws the ears to her hushed tones before injecting a bit of energy behind the chorus.
We then move into what will undoubtedly be a crowd pleaser with the title song. It’s a gorgeous song about accepting the distance that has opened up between you and someone you were once close to, showing that Mackey has some real lyrical chops as well as a great ability to build a song. The undulating synths and percussion beneath her words give this a really hypnotic feel.
And then we are on to ‘Softer Side’ for some real emotional release. This is probably the song that most shows the xx’s influence on Mackey’s songwriting and it has that same euphoric feel as their more recent output. This opening trio does feature three of the album’s absolute standout songs, so I can imagine some people feeling that the following section is a bit of a lull.
But I’d disagree. On ‘Give’, ‘Low Light’, ‘Colour Me’, and ‘Helm’ I think we see an artist who is confident in their ability to pare things back and still reel in the listener, and if you give some real attention to these songs I can’t see how you won’t be captivated. But it is with ‘Good As I Wanted’ that Is It Light Where You Are reaches another peak. So far, most of Mackey’s discussions of relationships have focused on their endings – but here we see a celebration of the start of something new, and with it comes the change in pace that the album (or my imaginary live set) was starting to need. It’s perfect timing, giving the listener the pep they needed to make the most of the ending.
‘Bored of Myself’ and ‘Eyes On You’ would be our encore, leaving the crowd with something to think about as they stepped outside into the dark night. These are two of the most honest and contemplative tracks on the record, honing in again on the emotive elements on this artist’s output. They are moving songs and it is, on the whole, a very moving album. But these aren’t simple songs that aim only to pull on the heartstrings. These are dynamic, multi-layered pieces of music that become all the more impressive when you realise that Mackey is responsible for pretty much every sound you’re hearing. It is hard to know how things would have been different with the Art School Girlfriend debut if the world hadn’t closed its doors for a year and a half, but whatever affect that had we have ended up with a richly rewarding LP that gets better with each listen. You should really give it some time.
Words by Fran Slater