Hayden Anhedönia is a rare gem in the pop goldfield; only few artists release their debut as daring and monumental as hers. 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳, a record that creates a majestic world for itself, is a novella compressed into 13 religiously inventive songs that may be a harbinger of something strikingly revolutionary to come.
Sunlight glistens on the wooden pie crust table—its lattice of warm yellow color all things they touch upon, leaving everything else caliginous as they are the only source of light in the misty, gothic room, somewhere in small-town America. Sat on the chair is a girl named Ethel Cain, Hayden Anhedönia’s unearthly alter ego. A simple white dress and stilettos is her uniform, and she loves her hair neatly straight and tucked behind her ears onto her back. This eponymous character, who is inspected by picture-framed Jesus from the wall at all times, is the main protagonist in a 13-song novella—titled 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳—about religion, runaways, and romance. The atmosphere of its entirety is accurately transmitted into its magnificent album cover: as eerie, medieval, and stingingly unsettling as the girl herself—nothing short of its marveling content.
Ethel Cain made her first appearance on Anhedönia’s first record-labeled EP 𝘊𝘢𝘳𝘱𝘦𝘵 𝘉𝘦𝘥 in 2019, a 15-minute sermon that explores the themes of violence, love, and religion, all of which are retold on the album. As it was her first release as Ethel Cain, Anhedönia experimented with those topics and entwined them around moody chords and reverbs—saw whether they fit. It was a cluster of prospering canticles that sometimes felt unestablished, as though a prelude to something bigger. Her next EPs, 𝘎𝘰𝘭𝘥𝘦𝘯 𝘈𝘨𝘦 and 𝘐𝘯𝘣𝘳𝘦𝘥, dug deeper into those grisly areas, persistently devolping the persona of Ethel Cain while still finding the right formula. This time, on 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳, her vision of gothic dreams is much clearer, larger, and stronger; once the participant in creating tales, she now becomes their narrator and protagonist with a gloomy past (“Family Tree (Intro)”) and intergenerational traumas (“Hard Times”). This newfound voice unlocks a new set of tools for Anhedönia to enhance her work, hence unleashing her debut record that is replete with meticulously detailed storytelling—written in straightforward but richly descriptive proses so riveting you get swept into their majestic world.
The album’s outstanding lyricism is part of what makes 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 function as a novella so exceptionally: Her writing builds particularized scenes that are strikingly vivid. In “Western Nights,” she details that her lover is a bad-boy outlaw who breaks into banks and beats up neighbors. “I watched him show his love through shades of black and blue/Starting fights at the bar across the street like you do,” intones she, bereft and sullen. “I’d hold the gun if you asked me to/But if you love me like you said you do, would you ask me to?” She further questions about his misdoings, wondering if he recognizes the same. Of course, she knows the answer, then sobs in the throes of his troubles and deprivation: “Crying in the light of the TV static/Clinging onto you like some love blind addict.” Having left the neighborhood, she sings of running away with a charming stranger on the titular place in “Thoroughfare”—she does not trust him at first, but what the stranger offers is what she has hopelessly longed for: kindness and care. She could not resist. “But now that I met you, I finally know just where I’m heading,” she sings lovingly, unaware of what would come next—a sweet but portentous love song. Here, Anhedönia writes like a novelist: detailing these happenings with imagery, animating everything in the listeners’ minds.
This lyrical and picturesque writing allows the album’s narrative to flow like a warm breeze—seamless and pleasant. After arriving in California, Ethel sees the stranger, now her lover, seducing her with chemicals and asserting dominance over her in “Gibson Girl.” “If you hate me, please don’t tell me/Just let the lights bleed, all over me,” she subserviently pleads. The girl then becomes infused with hallucinations, losing grip on reality, in "Ptalemaea." The hoarse whispers of “Love you” scatter around the song, each appearance becoming increasingly insufferable for her to the point where she screeches, attempting to dispel them and his infinite inflictions of pain—unarguably one of the record’s most poignant and frightening moments. In this track, as she is about to meet her demise, she confronts the religion she has been escaping from since the first track one last time: “Blessed be the children, each and every one come to know their God through some senseless act of violence” and “Run then, child, you can’t hide from me forever” are the testimonies to her final grasps of life from the above, accompanied by harsh and violent rushes of electric guitar strings. This is where the story reaches its finale—the album’s absolute peak—and when words could not proceed with it any further, leaving the next two tracks solely as instrumentals: the one with her wails and outbursts of thrashing sounds indicating his lover’s torture to death, and the other with peaceful and serene piano arrangements signifying her ascension to heaven and her ultimate release from cruelty.
With “August Underground” and “Televangelism,” it is hard not to get lost in Anhedönia’s theatrical, expressive, and gothic soundscapes—the fragments of which are inspired by her childhood in an American Baptist community when she sang for the church alongside her mother. Her voice on the record echoes as if she is singing the verses inside the large aisle: resonant and cloudy, making each track feel like a hymn, with her audience listening from the pews. Most of 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 is backed by reverberating synths, guitars, and drums similar to Lana Del Rey’s 𝘉𝘰𝘳𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘋𝘪𝘦. Their intensity varies as the narrative marches through its emotional highs and lows. The second half of “Stranger,” the grand finale, is swarmed with thunderous synths and electric guitars when she incessantly asks her lover from above if he feels anything after murdering her, stashing away her body in his basement, and eventually eating her (yes, you read it right). “Just tell me I’m yours if I’m turning in your stomach,” she demands, “Am I making you feel sick?” The immersive instruments work as the portrayal of her raw emotions—which also forms the perfect atmosphere for the story full of murkiness and tragedies—while the lyrics work as the narrative itself. Together, 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳’s cinematic storytelling creates the world unto itself, beckoning listeners to divulge in and witness the tragic life of a girl who tries to find her state of peace in America—a rare gem in the pop goldfield.
According to Anhedönia, 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 is the first leg of a trilogy centered around women in different portions of American history. This first piece finds Ethel Cain still a girl, the daughter of the town’s favorite preacher. The album is nothing short of excellent; full of continuous dialogues, broken characters, and jaw-dropping storylines, she directs every element like none other. It is utterly shocking that this is only her debut—her first establishment in music—since not many artists release theirs as daring and monumental as hers. What is even more exciting is what is to come in the future when she releases the rest of the trilogy—which musical landscapes she’ll venture into and how she’ll unfold the story further. 𝘗𝘳𝘦𝘢𝘤𝘩𝘦𝘳'𝘴 𝘋𝘢𝘶𝘨𝘩𝘵𝘦𝘳 could be a harbinger of something strikingly revolutionary—the beginning of a steadily forming queendom—and through its irresistible eruption of fresh ideas for how an artist crafts an album, Hayden Anhedönia has made a bold yet enchanting statement that introduces her as one of the most compelling newcomers in the sphere of dream pop.
(It’s been a while since I last wrote a full review. After listening to this album, I felt the urge to write one, because it’s so hauntingly beautiful! There may be flaws, and for that I apologize. If you make it to the end of this review, thank you so much, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on both the review and the album! I’d also like thank @JohnLouisHoward for introducing me to her music with “Gibson Girl,” which blew my mind and encouraged me to dive into her music in the first place!)
Check out my list of all the Bloom Bops I’ve given:
Edit: A few grammar mistakes!
Edit 2: A few incorrect word choices!
|1||Family Tree (Intro) / 86|
|2||American Teenager / 84|
|3||A House In Nebraska / 88|
|4||Western Nights / 90|
|5||Family Tree / 92|
|6||Hard Times / 86|
|7||Thoroughfare / 92|
|8||Gibson Girl / 92|
|9||Ptolemaea / 94|
|10||August Underground / 86|
|11||Televangelism / 86|
|12||Sun Bleached Flies / 88|
|13||Strangers / 96|