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Review: Art School Girlfriend @ Rough Trade

Epigram reviews Art School Girlfriend's show behind her sophomore record, Soft Landing.

By Imogen Rance, Proofreader

When I first moved to Bristol to start university, the debut album of Art School Girlfriend, aka Polly Mackey, Is it Light Where You Are? (2021) became the soundtrack to many of my long walks as I began to orientate myself. Something of the brooding lyrics and the new wave and shoegaze influenced synth tones aligned with the disorientation of finding a place in a new city. With Soft Landing, released in early August of this year, Mackey takes Art School Girlfriend to intimate and newly euphoric places.

Cool and quietly confident, she kicked off the sold-out tour of her new album at Bristol’s Rough Trade. The understated band (which includes Marika Hackman, Mackey’s partner and well-established musician in her own right, on bass and backing vocals) appeared on stage, all dressed in black and launched straight into one of Soft Landing’s highlights ‘The Weeks’. There seemed to be some initial technical issues but these were quickly resolved. The song begins muted and ambient but gradually swells to a dramatic crescendo of electric guitars and swirling synths backing the lyrics ‘You’re all I can see / lean back on me’. The track exemplifies Mackey’s ability to capture emotion in her music – it is imbued with intimacy and soft intensity and is probably my favourite song I’ve heard about love all year.

After another song, ‘Real Life’, Mackey addressed the audience saying they were thrilled to be starting the tour in Bristol, “it’s always one of our favourites”, to enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. The now solid back-catalogue of Art School Girlfriend material meant the set was comprised of an eclectic mixture of some of her earlier releases including her first single, ‘Bending Back’, and the moody, synth driven ‘Diving’. We were lucky enough to experience the live debuts of ‘Waves’ and ‘Blue Sky’, more lowkey tracks with swirling soundscapes which provided some of the set’s quieter, more reflective moments.

Mackey has spoken about her intention for Soft Landing to capture live performances on synths rather than for the songs to be built from purely electronic, computer-generated sounds – this was something that translated really well to the live show. Elements such as the Warpaint influenced bassline on ‘Close to the Clouds’, and the staccato synth sound in ‘A Place to Lie’, which is actually a heavily processed nylon string guitar, gave the show a richer feel and contributed to the more energetic and immediate feel of the tracks from the new album.

Another of the set’s highlights was a cover of Prince’s synth-funk/dance track ‘I Would Die 4 U’ which Mackey had previously released a cover of back in 2021 with backing vocals from Hackman. In Mackey’s hands the song is altered from the punchy, sharp energy of the dance track to an atmospheric, somehow darker and almost seductive rendition. Yet in the process she loses none of its intensity. She changes none of the lyrics but they seem to take on an evolved meaning. From Prince the lyrics, ‘I’m not a woman, I’m not a man / I am something you’ll never understand’ and ‘I would die for you / Darling if you want me to’ marry ideas of gender ambiguity and religious devotion. But sung by Art School Girlfriend the religious imagery seems to serve more of a metaphorical purpose, evoking themes of lesbian desire.

Art School Girlfriend @ Rough Trade | Imogen Rance

Art School Girlfriend’s show at Rough Trade was brought to a euphoric conclusion with ‘Out There’ and ‘A Place to Lie’. Mackey said that ‘Out There’ was her favourite to perform live and joked it was the best chance of “getting people dancing at an Art School Girlfriend show”. The crowd was really moving by this point and the enthusiasm was solidified by somebody’s loud yell of “YEESSS” as the song built to its peak. ‘A Place to Lie’ received similar energy from the audience, and the song’s acoustic drum heavy conclusion brought the set to a dramatic close.

Having just completed her UK tour and heading off in February to kick off her first headline European tour, Art School Girlfriend has exciting things ahead of her. I can’t wait to see what she has to offer next time she returns to Bristol.

Featured Image: Imogen Rance

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