Album Review: Midwife – Forever

[The Flenser; 2020]

It’s not easy to be minimalist and distinct, but Madeline Johnston pulls it off. As Midwife, the Denver artist specializes in songs that are short on words but heavy on feeling. Things like reverb and distortion feel less like effects and more like extensions of her voice, made even more emotional through its coarsening in the recording process.

Forever follows Like Author, Like Daughter, the first Midwife album and an ideal grief companion to get through 2017 and beyond. Johnston knows not only pain and trauma but also how stifling they can be. Forever is focused on the death of her friend, Colin Ward, who passed away in 2018. While it doesn’t possess the lyrical specificity to devastate like Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, it’s glazed in enough melancholy to make you sit in silence before you realize how long it’s been since you uttered a single word.

On opener “2018”, Johnston doesn’t just condemn a year; she repudiates it. “Get the fuck away from me, 2018” could read like an “edgy” pop hook that went sour more than a year ago, but with Johnston’s voice, it’s a decree that shows slowcore can be forced into the ugliness of reality, no matter how ethereal it is. 

Johnston classifies her music as ‘heaven metal’, which can seem a little precious, especially when so many metal acts are able to bring in “the way of grace.” But she does understand how to use guitar as a melodic and textural tool. Her playing style feels improvisational but purposeful, like she’s able to intertwine feelings and melodies through total instinct. 

She’s not a solipsist either. Her words are sparse and general, but in a way that lets it feel like she’s speaking both as you and to you. Refrains of “This is really happening” and “You can’t run for your whole life” aren’t unique to her mind, but if she doesn’t voice them, who will? “Anyone Can Play Guitar” is a cover in name only, containing neither Thom Yorke’s lyrics nor his sneering perspective. As Johnston sees it, if you have the ability and desire to strum some chords or pick a melody, you can play guitar. 

The most verbose presence on Forever is Ward himself, reciting an autumnal poem on the first half of “C.R.F.W.” The pensive melodies and heavy reverb of Johnston’s across the second half of the song’s nine-minute runtime leave a feeling that she has solidified the foundation of this style, and new frontiers in structure and instrumentation are waiting for her. The closest to a shakeup are some keys and percussion, and they tend to work without sacrificing her usual process. On closer “S.W.I.M.”, with its seismic waves of distorted chords, Johnston declares, “I don’t want to swim forever / Treading water my whole life,” as if she knows that is all we need.