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Midwife - Forever Music Album Reviews

Denver slowcore artist Madeline Johnston’s memorial to a late friend is full of barren dream-pop and hypnotic, nearly wordless ruminations on the pain of loss.

Madeline Johnston, the slowcore multi-instrumentalist who records as Midwife and Sister Grotto, found her footing as an artist while living at Rhincoeropolis, a beloved warehouse venue and artist co-op in Denver, Colorado. When local officials shuttered the space in the wake of the 2016 Oakland Ghost Ship fire, Johnston and her close friend Colin Ward were two of 15 local musicians displaced. A little over a year later, Ward died unexpectedly. The back-to-back losses left Johnston feeling suffocated by sorrow, disconnected from her community in a city that no longer felt like home. She immersed herself in the songwriting process until she resurfaced with Forever, a collection of candid, minimalist shoegaze that grapples with the impermanence of life.
With the barren dream-pop of album opener “2018,” she surveys the year and forces herself to accept the truth, repeating, “This is really happening” until the words go numb. There’s always been an air of detachment to Midwife’s music—2017’s Like Author, Like Daughter sounds like anesthetized Grouper—but here she sounds trapped, stuck in the purgatory of grief. On lead single “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” which sounds nothing like the Radiohead song, a hazy wash of guitar floods the air as she lies flat on her back, fixated on the desire to outrun her life yet pinned beneath the minute hand of a clock. It’s the type of warm, melancholic drone you want to pull up to your chin like a weighted blanket, and she wisely follows it with “Vow,” a heartbreaking instrumental that spaces out its lone piano chords so each one falls like a teardrop.

Midwife is the rare artist who can wallow in pain without indulging self-pity. She performs her own kind of therapeutic practice on “C.R.F.W.,” a nearly nine-minute sprawl that opens with a recording of Ward reading an original poem about desire and fate, originally commissioned for the 2011 collaborative project Pure Becoming. His recitation is empathetic, spiritual, spoken in a flat tone with no audience in mind. In the final line, he compares death to a falling leaf: “Imagine the way a breeze feels against your leaf body when you finally don’t have to hold on anymore.” It’s not the poem itself that’s so remarkable, but the way Midwife follows his words with ambient drone and tectonic synth hums, turning it into a moving homage that feels like a hypnagogic meditation on the possibility of an afterlife.

Johnston calls her music “heaven metal,” and Forever is heavy and hypnotic, full of nearly wordless ruminations on the pain of loss. But while the album begins as an outlet for grief, it grows towards zen-like acceptance of death. Closer “S.W.I.M.” capitalizes on Midwife’s strengths—blown-out fuzz, lethargic percussion, a pop of melody that appears like a daydream—to mirror her lyrics: “Treading water my whole life/I don’t want to swim forever/Reaching for the other side.” Forever is first and foremost a tribute to Ward, but its strength lies in the power of Johnston’s singular experience to unlock communal knowledge: that the mourning process never really becomes less painful, but so long as it’s inevitable, we need not feel alone.

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