Published Apr 09, 2020Midwife's sophomore album, Forever, carries with it a sense of dark, elegiac mystery. Its album art shows what appears to be a ghostly set of angel wings beneath a midnight moon. But, like much of Forever, it's intentionally blurry — just a little out of focus. Reverb and layered guitars create a sweet, fizzy sheet of shoegaze, and Madeline Johnston's vocals are haunted by distance and distortion as she whispers out deceptively simple refrains.
These blurry sonic elements combine to set the album's emotional core in focus: Johnston's dizzy, dazed grief as she copes with the suicide of her close friend, Colin Ward. Rather than describing this grief, Johnston's six songs seem to aim for something more ambitious and elusive: to portray her experience of grief and to extend this space of grief to others.
This ambition naturally leads to songs of confusion and sadness, but what's remarkable is Johnston's warmth and empathy despite her grief. On "Language," while a drum kick thuds, a spare guitar sings, and a synth glitches and bleeps, Johnston asks, over and over, "How do I say it, in every language?" In the song's final moments, before the synth softly screeches and fades, she says, "I will never forget you." On the album's catchiest song, "Anyone Can Play Guitar," lo-fi electronic drums sputter and fizzle as fuzzy guitars swoop and glide. Johnston sings, "Anyone can play guitar / Anyone can say goodbye / Anyone can fall in love."
These short refrains allow the expansive songs to breathe, which imbues the dense emotional landscape with lightness and fluidity. The album's spare lyrical space also foregrounds the word-heavy "C.R.F.W.," on which Colin Ward recites one of his poems. He reads, in conclusion, "Death is not violent. If you ask the leaf on the tree in autumn if it is scared to fall off the branch, it will say, 'I have given everything I am to this tree, and I am tired, and I'll float on down now.' Imagine the way a breeze feels against your leaf body while you finally don't have to hold on anymore." "C.R.F.W." doesn't end with Ward's words, but instead reflects upon them with thin, glossy electrics and airy, woolen synths.
And then, on the closer "S.W.I.M.," Johnston reflects most candidly on Ward's death. As she plays a heartland-esque riff fuzzed-out with reverb and pedal effects, she competes with the textured wave of sound to sing, "You know I can't wait forever / Treading water my whole life." Like much of Forever, it's bleary yet bright, acknowledging the dazed pain of Ward's death, while simultaneously approaching life with warmth and hope. (The Flenser)