Album Review: Art School Girlfriend – Is It Light Where You Are

[Wolf Tone; 2021]

After listening to Art School Girlfriend’s debut album Is It Light Where You Are for mere moments, it becomes awfully apparent that its creator has gone through a recent breakup; sometimes you hear a voice or you see a person’s look and you can just feel it. The project of the Kent-based multi-instrumentalist Polly Mackey, the songs from her debut collection were indeed written in the wake of a breakup, and it draws on memories and emotions from the dissolution of a long term relationship.

The overarching gloominess of the synthpop style she’s created here is very suited to the underlying narrative of Is It Light Where You Are (just feel the protracted longing in that title’s words for someone not present). It’s suited, too, that Mackey has a slightly sonorous quality to her vocals, delivering her lyrics like a carefully emerging figure through a shadowy fog.

Much of Mackey’s lyrics are brooding and pensive, belonging to the shadows; it feels like we are only privy to the surface of her inner emotions. In songs such as “Helm” and “Eyes On You”, she expresses sincere longing; “shiver… I shed for you,” she murmurs in the latter. It’s only at the start that she is less elusive: “Softer Side” sees Mackey being more open about the inefficiencies of the relationship, while “In The Middle” contains excellent lines like, “You’re a river running fast and I jump right into it.”

Her synth-heavy production sultrily fits into the current London scene, with melancholic beats that we’ve also come to expect from Grand Pax or Tirzah. Mackey’s synths are solemn throughout, underplayed intentionally, hesitantly showering over tracks like “Bored of Myself” and the almost ambient “Good As I Wanted”. The middle two tracks “Low Light” and “Colour Me” see her furtively reach for bigger production and more momentous presentation. This is particularly true in the latter, where her aching and breathy vocal is allowed to dominate; the intensity of her yearning for the safety of a relationship is exemplified best here.

This is the thing: much of Is It Light Where You Are is an enervating listen. As Mackey’s drowsy vocals and haunting textures washed over, I started to remember the withdrawn world of my own breakups. Yet paradoxically, this exactly confirms the quality of Art School Girlfriend’s debut: it’s an astonishingly bare creation, carefully-crafted to reflect the melancholic isolation of the end of a relationship. Her fulsome voice and featherweight beats create a dark-meets-light effect in their interaction, which bodes well for what comes next after this accomplished debut album.