Ethel Cain is the kind of name only a dying grandmother would have, but it’s also the pseudonym of art pop and southern gothic singer, songwriter, and producer Hayden Silas Anhedönia. Ethel Cain is also a character meant to reflect Anhedönia but if she were to not learn from the bad experiences life has thrown her way. Hayden has been self producing her own music for a handful of years, most of them under the Ethel Cain moniker, but she really started seeing a huge wave of attention with last year’s “Inbred EP”, a project that I was aware of but didn’t end up checking out because of other things that were on my plate. I wish I had, because maybe then this latest album would have been higher on my priority list and I wouldn’t be checking it out more than a week later. But better late than never, I’m finally giving Ethel Cain’s debut album my attention and thoughts. And I want to emphasize that this is a *debut album*, I want you to keep in mind as you’re reading this review that this her *first* full length project and artistic statement. Because I don’t want any of you to take it lightly when I say that “Preacher’s Daughter” is one of the most fully realized debut albums I’ve ever heard.
Not only is “Preacher’s Daughter” an impressive first artistic statement from someone who seems to have a great understanding of what her intent as an artist is, it’s also a fucking ambitious one. Not only is “Preacher’s Daughter” a concept album, which most artists would not successfully pull off for their first ever album, but it’s also the first of a trilogy of concept albums chronicling the lives and generational trauma of three different women in the Cain family, with “Preacher’s Daughter” serving as the end of the story. This is already quite a bold undertaking Hayden is setting up, and we haven’t even begun to get into the music.
The narrative opens with an introduction serving as a setup for a handful of the story’s themes as Hayden, drenched in reverb, sings over a dark and brooding slowcore cut that seems to take a lot of influence from shoegaze. Immediately after we get “American Teenager”, a track that honestly gave me whiplash when I first heard it due to how vastly different it was from the last, sounding like a lush, dream pop take on a Taylor Swift song. On first listen before I realized the story Hayden was trying to tell I wasn’t on board with this drastic of a sonic change, but once I realized how it played into “Preacher’s Daughter’s” narrative I actually really liked the creative decision. “American Teenager” gives a lot of exposition to the character of Ethel, showing her dissatisfaction with her hometown, her questioning her faith she grew up with, recovering from the end of a relationship, and wishing there was something more for her. The switch up to such a bright and nostalgic dreampop cut plays into Ethel’s naivety and innocence, something that is going to be shed by the album’s end. The track also introduces one of the big themes of the album, “The American Dream”, specifically for how it is essentially unattainable and doomed for most people, especially for those living in small, southern, working class towns like hers.
For the next few tracks, we see some of the relationships Ethel has had with various men in her life as the album starts introducing some of those darker, southern gothic elements that we saw in the album’s beginning and what will become very prevalent by its end. “A House In Nebraska” sees Ethel remembering a past love that abandoned her and her hometown before this album’s events, remembering the good times and desperately pleading for him to come back. With heartbreaking line on top of heartbreaking line, painting a picture of Ethel’s regret and loneliness on top of another dream pop instrumental but with a wall of overdriven guitar, we start seeing how vulnerable Ethel is becoming. This continues on the haunting piano lead “Western Nights” which details her newest relationship with a man that is toxic and even violent. Despite this, Ethel still stays by his side until his eventual death by the hands of the police during an attempted robbery, which, due to her own safety as well as trying to escape her hometown to make something of herself, quickly leads to Ethel being on the run on the track “Family Tree”. This song is the biggest nod to her southern gothic world so far, with a moody blues instrumental and a soaring guitar solo to top it all off. “Hard Times” serves as the end of Side A of “Preacher’s Daughter”, and this tracks actually explores her complicated relationship with said preacher. Ethel’s father, who has been dead for some time, is essentially implied to have sexually abused her at a very young age, and now years later she is still holding onto the trauma of being abused by him. She expresses how unhappy she is with life, how she feels her happiness died with him and she no longer views him as the good man she once did, she grapples with the feeling of still loving her father even after the hurt he did, and expresses a desire to move on from the pain and trauma he’s caused her.
At this point, we have seen three devastating ends to important relationships that Ethel has had with men she loved, and it paints a picture of how how hurt she is, how lonely she feels, and how she’s in desperate need to feel loved by someone. “Preacher’s Daughter” portrays a very sad, relatable, and sympathetic character that by this point in the album you’re just rooting for her to make it out of her hometown, make something positive of her life, and find someone who will truly care for her and treat her well. So on “Thoroughfare” when Ethel is offered a ride to California by a charming trucker who treats her kindly and is absolutely infatuated with her, just as naively as Ethel you start to have hope that this is a turning point for her where she starts a life she’s happy with with a man that’ll be her true love. And how could you not, as this anthemic, sprawling, gorgeous, nine minute dreampop country ballad blasts away with beautiful and nostalgic portraits of south western Americana. On first listen, this is easily the album’s most beautiful and hope inspiring moment as it seems like Ethel is finding her way in the world. However, on every listen afterwards, this becomes one of the most tragic listens on “Preacher’s Daughter”, as you now have the knowledge that this is the beginning of the end.
The next song, “Gibson Girl” begins a frankly dark and unsettling set of tracks. From my brief dive into Ethel Cain I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Lana Del Rey’s music, which I don’t think is fair to either of them, but this track specifically does remind me of Lana, her “Ultraviolence era” specifically, with its dark, smokey atmosphere and a sleazy guitar lead, sounding like the soundtrack to the corner of the filthiest dive bar in America where all of the lowlives end up in. It’s a perfectly fitting atmosphere then, as Ethel, singing with a very digital vocal processing that represents her dehumanization, details her boyfriend feeding her drugs and pimping her out at strip clubs. It’s clear that these strangers and her boyfriend aren’t treating her well, but, at least in her intoxicated state, she’s welcoming of it anyway because she’s started to associate this mistreatment with love. That is until “Ptolemaea”, which is practically an industrial song, where she recognizes how horrible her boyfriend has been to her and how dangerous he actually is, but not soon enough as he gives her so many drugs that she loses grip on reality, with the implication being that she’s too intoxicated to stop him from sexually assaulting her. This leads to “August Underground”, an instrumental cut that seems to incorporate elements of drone and doom, where Ethel tries to escape her kidnapper’s clutches to no avail. He murders Ethel, and on the ambient, piano lead “Televangelism”, Ethel ascends to heaven. She reflects on her life, wishing she could have lived her dream with the man who left her at the story’s beginning but ultimately accepting her death on the heavenly “Sun Bleached Flies”, and on the lush “Strangers”, we see the the story coming to an end, with it being revealed that Ethel’s mom is still looking for her, not knowing her daughter’s fate, and her murderer eating her corpse. From beyond the grave, Ethel still wishes that the man who killed her loves her before saying goodbye to her mother, wishing that she moves on on Ethel’s “disappearance” for her own peace of my mind.
Okay, so “Preacher’s Daughter” is…a lot. There’s a lot going in terms of story and music, it’s a patience testing slow burn of an album, and once you get a grasp of everything it’s doing and all it’s trying to tell you it’s a tragic and frankly feed bad experience. If anything is going to make people feel lesser on or dislike this album, it’s definitely going to be its lack of immediacy and its heavy nature (also its choice to slather huge pools of reverb throughout the track run). However, I think there’s a lot of cool and impactful things going on. For one, I like how bold of a concept and story this is for Hayden, especially on her first album. I also like that despite this concept, each song can stand on its own and works as its own individual piece that you can listen to outside this record’s project. I like how despite the long lengths of many songs here, they still feel very accessible and well constructed. I like southern gothic meets dream pop aesthetic leads to many different kinds of songs yet they still feel like they live in the same universe. I like how explosive the production can be, with many songs feeling bigger than the room can contain them. I love Hayden’s intimate yet larger than life singing voice, and I love her poetic songwriting that gives gut punch after gut punch.
Most notably, I love all of the ideas and themes that Hayden naturally incorporates with this story. Hayden paints a vivid portrayal of Southern Americana, usually used to glamorize these towns and their stories, and instead uses it to highlight how doomed a lot of these young people who grow up there are, with many people at best quickly meeting a dead end living a boring and unfulfilling life and at worst…well, ending up like Ethel. There’s also how abuse, mistreatment, and trauma by the hands of someone you love or trust can make that seem normalized, and especially if you’re vulnerable, lonely, unhappy, and wanting to feel loved, you can often find yourself devoted to people who’ll harm and hurt you. There’s also the concept about how feeling lost, whether that be struggling with faith, being dissatisfied with where you are in life, or, again, feeling the need to be loved, can often lead to someone making impulsive and stupid mistakes just to find some fulfillment or answers. There’s also another layer, which I didn’t want to harp on because she seems like have a complex relationship with it being a huge focus on her art, when you acknowledge the fact that Hayden and the character of Ethel is transgender. Again, I’m not going to beat it into the ground, but there’s a lot that’s portrayed in this story that is not uncommon among trans individuals, especially those that are lower class. Having a complicated relationship with your upbringing, feelings of loneliness or isolation, not being satisfied with your life and wanting something more, wanting to feel loved, being mistreated in your relationships, running away from your living situation, strangers trying to take advtange of you, being forced or pressured into sex work, and, unfortunately, being attacked, kidnapped, and/or murdered. This story is already tragic as is, but viewing it through a trans lense, especially during a time where more anti-trans laws are being passed every other day and the murder rate of trans people is increasingly on the rise, it makes it all the more heartbreaking to say the least.
I’m not sure how to end this or summarize my thoughts, but needless to say I’m impressed. Ethel Cain’s debut album, in my opinion, is bolder than some artists’s entire discography. “Preacher’s Daughter” is sprawling, larger than life, distinct, beautiful, horrifying, hopeful, tragic. I think this album will test your patience, it certainly did mine on first listen, but if you really give it your full attention or a couple of extra listens if need be, I think it could be very rewarding. Obviously it’s very narrative driven and tells the story of one individual in particular, but I feel like it can reflect universal experiences. It’s heavy, it’s flooring, it takes a lot out of you. Ethel Cain’s “Preacher’s Daughter” is a devastating tragedy of an innocent young woman betrayed, hurt, and destroyed by the ones supposed to love her and The American Dream, and it’s one of the most compelling debut albums I’ve ever heard. It’s gonna be a tight race in December.
Also, how dare none of you tell me one of the best albums of the year was made by a trans woman?! Jail, all of you.