Denver musician Madeline Johnston calls the music she makes as Midwife “heaven metal.” In her songs, dream pop, ambient, and lo-fi guitar combine to create the kind of juxtapositions that a term like “heaven metal” implies: lightness and weight, serenity and darkness, divinity and earthiness. Forever begins with Johnston whispering two ominous couplets: “This is really happening to me” and “get the fuck away from me, 2018.” That was the year Colin Ward, Johnston’s close friend, former roommate, and a Denver DIY lifer, passed away at 27. Two years before that, Johnston and Ward were forced to move out of Rhinoceropolis, Denver’s main DIY venue, and a breeding ground for artists. Forever is born from those dual tragedies, both of which also contain several smaller tragedies: loss of home, loss of direction, a sense that the grief will never end.
Like her Flenser labelmate Planning For Burial, Johnston understands how to use instrumentation and effects to conjure specific emotions. Throughout, she alternates buzzy strumming with sun-streaked swells, and drapes her vocals in funereal reverb, creating a sense of sadness that feels almost boundless. On “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” the banality of twenty-something romance becomes a stark reckoning with loss. “C.R.F.W.” features a recording of Ward reading a poem he wrote, which Johnson follows with a glowing ambient passage. That interlude gives way to “S.W.I.M,” the album’s most devastating song. In it, Johnston—her voice caked in distortion—lets loose an anguished howl, which grows so loud it overpowers the guitars. It’s a bracing moment, one in which Johnston’s sorrow becomes almost tangible. She’s not fighting the loss of a loved one, she’s fighting against the acceptance of life without him. For all its digital effects and carefully manipulated textures, the core of Forever is its broken human heart.