It’s not always easy to pinpoint the moment when a drone becomes a melody. One extended, solitary tone can capture a listener’s attention and draw them into a composition in much the same way that a melody can, but they serve different purposes—one of a kind of auditory hypnosis versus a more active kind of listening. Midwife, the recording project of Denver singer/songwriter Madeline Johnston, does both at once. Her music has a kind of gentle stillness about it, not in the same way that an artist like Stars of the Lid might, but not too far off from it either. She makes pop music, at least in the most general sense, but it moves gradually and gracefully through hushed spaces and warmly muted textures. And its mesmeric qualities are undeniable—to hear her new album Forever is to be caught up in the patient, gradual beauty of songs that give the most back to those who aren’t in any particular hurry.
Released on Flenser—a label that houses like-minded artists such as the melancholy droning Drowse, the shoegazing metal of Planning for Burial and the insular post-punk of Have a Nice Life—Forever isn’t by any stretch extreme music, but there’s a dark, haunted sensibility that sets Midwife apart from more conventional singer/songwriters. The stark, minimalist “Vow” is barely a song, for instance—an instrumental repetition of three solitary tones with wide spaces between them. It’s less dream pop than the abstract, ill-defined space of actually being in a dream itself, a kind of whited-out, half-blind melodic purgatory. And the chilling opener “2018” feels ghostly and bleak in a way that coffeehouse indie folk never could. These are insomniac dirges for being snowed-in and shut-out.
Johnston does, however, have a keen knack for pop songwriting, yet she delivers those songs through heavy layers of effects, obscured vocals and as few BPMs as possible. Much of the album was written while Johnston was working through her grief after the death of close friend Colin Ward, and there’s an elegiac sensibility to even the most accessible songs. It’s not always easy to make out what she’s singing, but the feelings—the sweetness and the sadness—are impossible to overlook on a song like “S.W.I.M.”, whose brightly buzzing slow-mo shoegaze feels like a fond flip through old, faded photographs. And “Anyone Can Play Guitar” is as close to a straightforward rock song as Midwife delivers, offering koan-like truths such as “Anyone can fall in love” over a warmly buzzing guitar melody. It’s simple, gorgeous, everything it needs to be and nothing more or nothing less.
At only six tracks, some of them barely there, Forever feels a little less than a full-length album as a whole. Yet what’s here is heartbreaking and beautiful, its greatest moments both deeply affecting and intensely trance-like. Midwife provides both catharsis and hypnosis in equal measure—however much of each she’s willing to give is a gift.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.