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Art School Girlfriend
Is It Light Where You Are Amanda Farah , September 14th, 2021 09:05

Polly Mackey's debut is suffused with longing, but it's the beats and percussion that take centre stage, finds Amanda Farah

Art School Girlfriend is the project of singer-producer-multi-instrumentalist Polly Mackey. Her debut album, Is It Light Where you Are, was written after Mackey broke up with her longterm girlfriend. The collection of brooding, synth-based songs is dominated by a sense of longing and delivered with a disarming gentleness.

What Mackey conveys so well in her lyrics is the peripheral emotions that come with the end of a relationship, the confusion, bewilderment, and insecurity that compound the heartbreak. “Do you think of me at night / Is it empty on my side” she asks on ‘Low Light.’ Though her voice is always steady, there is just enough remove to let us know that there’s only one answer she’s prepared to hear, that just because she won’t go to pieces doesn’t mean she’s not affected.

On an album big on understatement, the beats and percussion – whether programmed or played live is difficult to distinguish but ultimately inconsequential – are the stars. ‘Give’ alone covers a broad spectrum of far-away metallic pattering, mechanical clicks, programmed pops, and what sound like creaking floorboards. Whatever form the beats take, they forms a spine around which the synths can hang loosely and Mackey can can wrap her vocals. The effect assures that however light Mackey’s touch might be, there is always a firm texture to her songs.

Those details in percussion exemplify what makes Is It Light Where You Are so disarming. Many of her arrangements have a less concrete, more amorphous structures, relying on her voice rather than her synthesizers to carry things forward. Play it as background music and you could float away on soft, padded out songs. Listen closely and you’ll find the accents she’s sewn into each of the songs: flourishes and pitch-shifted harmonies and synthetic tweaks that fade in and disappear as quickly. But when one of those sounds creeps in, heard for the first time after repeat listens, it can send a jolt through you.

Album standout ‘Colour Me’ punctuates the subtleties of Mackey’s synth lines with a sweeping, visceral crescendo. This rare bold moment is underscored by faint, glitchy effects and delicate, percussive rhythms that first flutter and then build into a steady, pulsating beat. If other songs throughout the album hint at an affinity for goth, it is completely undeniable here, and deeply satisfying.

Art School Girlfriend has created a cohesive aural universe of gauzy atmospheric compositions. Mackey goes for understatement in her vocal delivery and lyrics as well as in the details that pepper her tracks. Her evenhanded approach may not go for big, sweeping moments, but it feels more true to life. Longing as an emotion isn’t really about bombshell moments, it’s a slow, aching pull. It’s a distinction Mackey manages to relate with bittersweet beauty.