Midwife’s “Forever” is a Nuanced Depiction of Grief

Madeline Johnston, who records as Midwife, has come up with a great name for her genre of music: “heaven metal.” Her second album, Forever, has the noise of metal with songs built around heavy guitar, but it trades in that genre’s usual aggressiveness for calming repetition. The result is a gloomy, immersive atmosphere that is reminiscent of some of Emma Ruth Rundle’s work, though this music is less focused on hooks. Instead, Johnston makes these songs into formless voids that are dark, emotive, and also weirdly peaceful. It’s relaxing to let everything go and let this album’s sound wash over you.

Johnston muffles her voice in the guitar, almost sounding like she’s patching into the songs from a radio. The lyrics are simple and repetitive, matching the droning guitar parts, and they’re focused on loss after a friend of hers, Colin Ward (who is heard reading a poem on the album’s fifth track track, “C.F.R.W.”), passed away. That lends the songs an underlying purpose and feeling that helps keep it engaging, unlike some other drone albums that can be difficult to connect with if it just feels like the artist is experimenting with sounds for the sake of it.

Forever only has six songs, but each are their own distinct, haunting reflections on grief. Opener “2018” captures the initial shock and anger, with its only lyrics being “this is really happening to me” and “get the fuck away from me, 2018.” The closest the album has to a single is “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” which has a gentle melody that blends in with Johnston’s reverbed guitar. “Vow” and “Language” bring the volume down to nearly a whisper, using space and spare droning notes to create a feeling of vast emptiness. Ward’s poem jars the listener out of that lull at the start of “C.F.R.W.” which is followed by four minutes of reflective ambient sound that lets his death settle in. That transitions into the closer, “S.W.I.M.,” which returns to the heaven metal sound with the loud guitars and shoegaze-inspired riffs. Johnston sings her most straight-forward, heartbreaking lyrics on that song, conveying her struggle to move on: “I don’t want to swim forever, treading water my whole life.”

It is grim material, and Johnston portrays it unflinchingly, using both her words and the sound to convey her grief directly while also retaining ambiguity that will allow listeners to connect with these songs in their own way. As heavy as the subject matter and sound is at times, there is an undercurrent of resolve and strength in her noisy guitar parts, which help the album avoid feeling like it’s just hitting you over the head with sadness. Forever gives the listener a lot more than that; it’s a nuanced, heartfelt recording that belongs to its own genre and does justice to her friend’s memory.

“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is Fiona Apple in Peak Form

It’s nice that we can all agree. Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is receiving nearly unprecedented critical praise, and deservedly so. If you’re like me and think of music primarily as a vehicle for personalities and charisma, it is hard for anything to top this. Every song on this album is one that only Fiona Apple could have made, with words that only she would say. The level of detail and specificity in these songs makes the album transcend the idea of confessional songwriting: this isn’t just a little window into Apple’s world, it is her world, and anyone who listens is living in it for its entire duration.

That’s an underrated and increasingly rare trait in art — the idea of the work as a way to deepen your understanding of other people. A lot of Apple’s lyrics on Fetch the Bolt Cutters deal with uncomfortable subjects of abuse and gaslighting at the hands of men, especially the way they impacted her mindset and her friendships with other women. The most jarring moment, on “For Her,” comes after a couple minutes of a fun-sounding ditty when the song stops and Apple matter-of-factly states “Good morning. You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” It’s a far cry from “Sullen Girl” from Tidal, which couched its story of rape in a metaphor about a man taking her pearl and leaving a shell. Now, Apple is comfortable just saying the truth and embracing the harshness of it. On “Newspaper,” she describes a previous partner who caught her up in “his big show” and then began seeing another woman, who Apple felt an unspoken bond with.  “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure we can never be friends,” she muses, backed by a variety of percussion and backing vocals. “You and I won’t get a witness,” she adds. “We’re the only ones who will ever know.”

But now, through these songs, people will know a little bit, even if they don’t have the specifics. As a man, I realize it looks weird that I’m almost always celebrating the work of women, but part of it is how much I value this aspect of art. I can try to live with empathy and do my best to understand other people with different experiences, but I can’t really know. Albums like Apple’s are the closest you can get to walking in another person’s shoes because of the blunt, vivid truths in her lyrics and the authenticity of her performance. That’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and albums like this are why I listen to music.

The lyrics get so much of the attention, but the sound is just as big a part of this. I’ve written a decent amount about The Shaggs, who were untrained sisters who possessed little knowledge or training in music, yet still recorded an album at the behest of their father, which ended up becoming a cult classic. My argument in favor of them was that, while their music sounded unpleasant, there was a pureness and authenticity to it that is almost never heard, because it was made with no desire to impress and contained no references to other music. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about the closest a trained, talented musician has come to capturing that magic. In every element of these songs, Apple is breaking down the barriers of pretension and performance, until all that’s left is just her voice, her stories and the truth.

The instrumentation is heavily focused on rhythms, with Apple’s familiar piano playing a part along with miscellaneous percussion (which I suspect is just from things lying around her house) and drumming from her friend, Amy Aileen Wood. “Mistakes” are left in the recording, most notably dogs barking in the background (five are credited on the album with “backing barks,” “collar jangles,” and “thrashing”). In the closing track, “On I Go,” Apple can be heard saying “oh fuck, shit!” after presumably screwing up a take. Leaving these in is just another way Fetch the Bolt Cutters reduces the distance between itself and the listener, which, along with the emotional, biographical lyrics, gives it an unparalleled level of intimacy. When I listen to this album, I feel like I know exactly who Fiona Apple is.

Out of all those traits of hers that come through so clearly on Fetch the Boltcutters, my favorite is her intolerance for bullshit, which was made famous in her speech at the 1997 VMAs. It not only makes her likable, but it adds to her work, which benefits from not having slick production, trendy sounds, or any of the other factors that are often associated with quality but make it difficult for listeners to connect with music in a deep way. This is a sophisticated album that was likely obsessed over for a long time, as all of hers are, yet it feels raw and spontaneous because of its loose structure and homemade production, which adds to the visceral power of the lyrics. Apple’s voice is a major part of this, as she almost scat-sings through a lot of the album rather than singing show-offy notes. Her singing feels utilitarian, like all she wants to do is get the truth out as quickly as possible instead of being weighed down by the usual performative flourishes. She has mastered the art of making such effortful music feel organic and achingly real –only an album with this many imperfections could sound so perfect.

Becky vs. Shayna and Cheering for the Yankees

Wrestling fans have an unhealthy obsession with losers. Most online discourse now seems to revolve around who is getting “buried” or who “deserves better,” and often these complaints come with some bonus conspiracy theories about who Vince McMahon likes and why. It’s a very easy habit to fall into because the outcomes are pre-determined, which means theoretically any wrestler could be booked to win any match, so anyone can fantasize about what would happen if their favorite received the strong booking of top stars.

As a long-time Becky Lynch fan, I feel like a veteran of this type of fandom — I’ve already been through it all, come out the other side, and am now free to offer my wisdom to the less experienced fans who don’t know any better. Because Lynch was the loveable loser in WWE for most of her career, really starting with her classic match with Sasha Banks in NXT in 2015, then in her feud with Charlotte Flair, where Becky portrayed the plucky underdog who constantly got screwed by her former friend with a family legacy. At one point, I think Lynch lost something like 11 pay-per-view matches in a row. She was never portrayed as a complete joke, as WWE would throw her a bone with wins here and there, but she was obviously not a priority of the booking team for most of this time.

After a lot of these losses, Becky would go backstage and cut an unscripted fiery promo, where she was outraged at the villainous behavior of the heels and vowed to get revenge. These would be posted on WWE’s YouTube channel, where not a lot of people saw them, but most people who sought them out were won over by Becky’s genuine demeanor, her passion, and her ability to seem real in the increasingly fake world of wrestling. After every loss that should have made fans give up on her, Becky had a knack for saying exactly what she needed to in order to make people keep believing in her. She plucked away at this for a long time, gradually building an army of passionate fans without WWE really taking much notice until they turned her heel and the fans rejected it because they liked her too much. And at WrestleMania 35, it all paid off when she defeated Charlotte Flair and Ronda Rousey in the first women’s main event as the ascending fan favorite.

At Wrestlemania 36 this past Saturday, Lynch and her fans found themselves in a very different place: she has now been champion for a year, she’s one of their most promoted stars, and there is more scrutiny than ever before. While it’s so easy in wrestling to root for the underdog or the loser, Becky has become the ultimate winner, and a vocal segment of the audience is sick of her “holding back” the division, preventing their favorite losers from becoming stars. Her match with Shayna Baszler seemed prime for a passing of the torch: Baszler is a vicious heel who thrived in NXT and I thought was likely to defeat Becky to cement herself as a major player on the bigger stage of Monday Night Raw.

The company had other plans, and Becky prevailed in my favorite match of the first night of the two-night Wrestlemania spectacular. The match only lasted about nine minutes, but it was hard-hitting, intense, and both wrestlers fought like winning meant more to them than anything. In the end, Becky won with a roll-up out of a submission move by Shayna, which Shayna will likely view as a flukey embarrassment while Becky will see it as her outsmarting Shayna and finding a way to win through superior technique. As chapter one of likely a two or three match story, it was exactly what it should have been.

Watching that match is where I fully realized the weird position I’m in, cheering for the frontrunner as someone who almost never loves anything that’s too popular. Similar to Yankees fans, I’ve learned to embrace the trollish aspect of it — regardless of whether it’s “good booking,” at this point I cheer for Becky to win and then make fun of the people who get mad when she does. As far as I’m concerned, Becky should be champion forever.

This is probably the optimal way to watch wrestling rather than micro-analyzing the business decisions, and her matches particularly benefit from this method of viewing. Becky isn’t the most athletic or smoothest in the ring (she’ll be the first to tell you), but she fights like she cares and is able to scrap out these victories over seemingly much more physically gifted performers. She’s a protagonist people can believe in who is fun to root for, and it all feels natural because she created this energy herself through hard work and determination. So it’s a very different vibe than some of WWE’s other stars like Roman Reigns or (in the past) John Cena, who were the top face but had a certain hand-picked corporate stench to them.

Becky is certainly a corporate favorite now, but only because she made herself undeniable by using every chance she could to develop her character and make herself sympathetic. I included the history lesson at the beginning because I feel like there is some revisionist history around this, where people act like she got over through happenstance and then WWE started pushing her. The reality is that she dug herself out and changed the way the higher-ups perceived her by connecting with the audience at a level few ever have. Nothing is stopping other wrestlers who people moan about “deserving better” from doing this except that they aren’t as talented and smart as Becky Lynch.

Peel Dream Magazine Pays Tribute to Their Heroes With “Agitprop Alterna”

Peel Dream Magazine’s greatest strength and biggest obstacle is their ability to sound like all of your favorite bands. Anyone who is into this style of fuzzy, brainy indie rock will instantly recognize all of the classic influences: the sounds of Stereolab, Yo La Tengo, and My Bloody Valentine are all replicated on their second album, Agitprop Alterna, to a level of molecular detail. There is a studied, scientific quality to their songs; it’s obvious that songwriter Joe Stevens loves this style of music and has put a lot of thought into the formula that makes it work. Just to pull off this level of mimicry is an accomplishment in and of itself — if it was easy, more bands would do it.

But while the familiar, nostalgic sound of Peel Dream Magazine is what is going to draw listeners in initially, there is depth in Agitprop Alterna and a point of view that moves them beyond being just a hollow copy of superior bands. Compared to their first album, Modern Meta Physic, this one embraces a wider range of sounds and textures, covering almost every angle of their specific obsessive influences. Stevens is the primary instrumentalist, usually playing some noisy guitar or organ with some softer drones mixed in. Singer Jo-Anne Hyun plays a more pivotal role on this album, adding another instrument to the mix and playing off Stevens’ lower register in a way that is reminiscent of those same aforementioned bands that are hard not to mention in every sentence.

The reference points are all boiled down to a series of concise 2-3 minute songs that show Stevens’ skill at crafting the low-key melodies that were the core of all the bands he loves. The opener and lead single, “Pill,” sets the tone as a relentless, tight burst of energy and noise with a catchy, abstract chorus. Throughout the album, Stevens not only captures the familiar sounds, but also that blend of immediacy and intangible strangeness that is so hard to replicate. Songs like “Brief Inner Mission” and the closer “Up and Up” show a softer, pillowy side of the band, leaning into the gentler side of psychedelic pop exhibited by bands like Broadcast.

Most of the songs feel more meditative and internal, but a couple like “NYC Illuminati” and “Emotional Devotion Creator” are pointed criticisms of people who aren’t genuine and “stand for nothing at all.” In those songs, the perspective of Peel Dream Magazine crystallizes a bit. This is not an original band, or an innovative band, but in every song I feel there is a genuine appreciation for the music that inspired them, and a concerted effort to do justice to those heroes in a very uncynical way. Stevens accepts his place in this lineage of music and is smart enough to not try too hard to modify a sound that has already been proven and perfected. Agitprop Alterna can function as something of a meta-album, one that is a worthwhile piece of music itself while also being a celebration of the other bands that inspired it.

Quarantine Viewing: “On Becoming a God in Central Florida”

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m beginning to think this “capitalism” thing might not be as great as we thought. That is the primary lesson in the first season of Showtime’s On Becoming a God in Central Florida, an entertaining dark comedy for and possibly by Bernie Sanders supporters. Kirsten Dunst (who endorsed Bernie) stars as Krystal Stubbs, a young mother in early 90s Orlando who is working at a water park for minimum wage when she gets wrapped up in Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a multi-level marketing scheme that seems to more closely resemble a cult than an actual business.

The concept of FAM offers plenty of comedic fodder for the series, starting with the eccentric Obie Garbeau (played with hilarious intensity by Ted Levine) at the top, who rallies his downline troops with tapes touting the power of “The Garbeau System.” One true believer inspired by him is Cody Bonar, played by Theodore Pellerin, who is fanatical about the system, worships Garbeau, and is desperate to make it to the top of the pyramid. His character starts as one-dimensional in the first couple of episodes, but the slow peeling of his layers of personality and backstory ends up being one of the strengths of the series.

Dunst is the anchor of the show and gives a performance that should receive some awards attention. Her Stubbs character is determined, resourceful, and intelligent without ever becoming a Strong Independent Woman fantasy. She has flaws that feel real, and her desperate struggles for money and respect are played straight, even in goofy situations, which is part of the show’s tight balance of comedy and dark drama. And even when Stubbs is “winning” in the context of her goals from episode to episode, the viewer is left wondering if the victories are real, or if she is just becoming the type of dirty capitalist player that caused her to be in poverty to begin with.

Rounding out the strong supporting performances are Mel Rodriguez and Beth Ditto (a familiar name for music dorks) who play a married couple that is friends and neighbors with Stubbs. I recognized Rodriguez from the underrated HBO show Getting On and he gives a similarly sympathetic performance here as a well-meaning sad-sack guy who hides his despair beneath a veil of surface-level positivity. Ditto is fantastic in one of her first acting roles, and the two have a chemistry that makes them feel like a real couple (which is also aided by them looking like normal people, not glamorous actors).

Not everything quite works in this first season; a reporter character with a drug addiction who tries to investigate FAM feels underwritten and one character becomes Stubbs’ friend and babysitter in a relationship that is never quite fully fleshed-out on screen. Still, this show has stand-out performances, a lot of good twisted laughs, and a compelling plot that gradually gets stranger while saying a lot about how the concept of the American dream can be exploitative. There is also a second season on the way and a lot of room for growth with this premise and the main characters, so this would be worth watching even if we weren’t all stuck indoors.