As Art School Girlfriend, Polly Mackey blends her experience in the shoegaze band Deaf Club with her love of electronica: Guitars are processed to sound like synths, synths function like lead guitars, and drums flip between electronic and acoustic. Mackey’s voice—a grainy, yearning alto with a muted intensity—sets her apart further. In 2017, producer Paul Epworth signed Mackey to his Wolf Tone label, and she spent the next few years developing her sound at his Church Studios. For her full-length debut, 2021’s Is It Light Where You Are, she enlisted several producers to flesh out a breakup narrative with a vast array of electronic sounds. For her follow-up, Soft Landing, she works with a tighter pair of collaborators: longtime co-producer Riley MacIntyre and fellow songwriter Marika Hackman, Mackey’s partner.
Despite the skeleton crew, Landing is a dramatic expansion of Mackey’s sound that still retains the intimacy of her early work. Its songs share a newfound sense of focus, building to satisfying payoffs that never lose their thrill even when you see them coming. “The Weeks” and “Heaven Hanging Low” open in low-key arrangements before boiling over with post-punk and drum ’n’ bass twists, respectively. In the studio, Mackey sought a “roomy” sound with live guitars and strings accompanying the complex synth programming. The mysterious plucks on opener “A Place to Lie,” for example, are actually heavily processed nylon strings. Even the more basic tracks have some surprising textures, like the glitchy mush within “Blue Sky” or the warping synths of “How Do You Do It.”
The lyrics don’t always match the intricacy and confidence of the music: Songs called “Blue Sky” and “Waves” lean on predictable imagery about skies and waves. The complexity of the music helps to make up for the comparatively placid lyrics, but Mackey’s writing is most interesting when she zooms in on domestic bliss. On “The Weeks,” she writes about getting to know a partner better after the honeymoon phase, when the “halo slips away.” This nuance makes the full-on love songs land harder: “Heaven Hanging Low” is an ode to queer love with imagery that’s both Biblical and absurdist (“Slide through paradise, I was caught in the light/Pulling planets out the sky, taking a bite”). It’s her best song to date, intimate and thoughtful yet still magnetic. On Soft Landing, Art School Girlfriend are less focused on ecstatic joy than quiet contentment, shedding light on the abiding peace—and the creeping anxiety—that may await you at your destination.