Ethel Cain - Preacher's Daughter
Jun 15, 2022
90
I want to walk you all through my initial experience with Ethel Cain - and yes, it is to make a point at my own expense, but also because it highlights an issue when folks make reckless comparisons without the benefit of proper context.

So, like many I started hearing a lot of promising critical buzz about Ethel Cain this year - I had heard the name tied to a few EPs, but this was her full-length debut album, a 75 minute behemoth of a release. But that’s actually only a half-truth, I heard the most about her amidst a small social media firestorm when she openly scoffed at the coverage of a certain outlet sketching a lot of comparisons to Lana Del Rey. Now I saw that review and given a healthy skepticism to the whole situation, I didn’t take it at face value - I’ve seen the critic in question put out worse over the years on that masthead - but when I listened to her first few EPs, I grasped where at first the Lana Del Rey comparison seemed to make sense, maybe in parallels to Ultraviolence swallowed in smoky reverb, husky vocals, certain melodic progressions pulling from vintage Americana for dramatic recontextualization, and the occasional smattering of hip-hop inspired production, especially in the drums. But by the time I got to 2021’s Inbred, that was a comparison that stopped making sense altogether; it became obvious that Ethel Cain’s sonic influences were considerably darker; the ragged country touches felt homespun rather than appropriated where I’d almost say closer to dream country, a texture that amplified the mix rooted more in dream pop and slowcore, there was a quaking, unstable bleakness far closer to Chelsea Wolfe or Grouper, where if this album was touching Americana it wasn’t Lana Del Rey’s exasperated but teasing flirtation but the sort of brutal deconstruction that felt far closer to reality and didn’t play coy with conservative power structures. Hell, even the hip-hop touches felt different - less the glamour of A$AP Rocky and more Backxwash or any of the trap metal side of what’s left of the Soundcloud scene, which places her influences much younger, and while it already feels cliche to call it southern gothic and make the Lingua Ignota comparison, especially given how much American evangelicalism hung over Inbred, the ragged energy just felt different; younger, less studied, more queer but also more rootsy.

Now there were problems with Inbred - the production definitely showed its rough edges and the pacing of slowcore is something I need to be in the right mood to enjoy… but fuck, that was true about every artist I just mentioned and the leap in songwriting was enough to get me properly excited about this debut… which reportedly was a little less visceral but also would showcase a greater breadth in sounds, probably the smart choice if your debut album is seventy-five minutes! All that is context as to why I didn’t get to this album earlier, and a signifier that certain critics should be smarter with any comparisons they make, but I was encouraged to hear it… so what did we get?

…well, we got one of the best albums of 2022, the sort of titanic debut that all at once feels brutal and bleak but yearning and incredibly romantic in a way that’ll be distinctly uncomfortable for so many audiences - also, I don’t often put content warnings in album reviews, but if there’s one where it’s appropriate for extreme violence, of both sexual and non-sexual varieties where it is more visceral than damn near any metal album I’ve heard in recent memory, it’s for Preacher’s Daughter. Yes, Ethel Cain goes all the way there, where the Lingua Ignota comparisons are absolutely valid - and if you’re alienated by her music this goes arguably as far - but she also made it a grand, generational epic where it’s only one part of three albums planned and I’m convinced she could pull off the trilogy… and it absolutely is not for everyone and even beyond the length, I cannot promise you’ll enjoy it.

And I have to start with the plot, framing, and themes of this album - yes, there will be spoilers, although with some of the stuff I’m about to describe I’m not sure the majority of you will believe it. So… Ethel Cain is the titular ‘preacher’s daughter’, with the story set in the early 90s in an extremely religious part of the deep south… and if you’ve heard Inbred or you just clued into some of what I’ve already described, you already know the streak of religion and abuse of women that bleeds through and gets painfully vivid on ‘Hard Times’. It’s a trauma that underscores every relationship this protagonist has and the string of relationships that follow in its wake, from the high school sweetheart that left her escapist dreams to fade to the swaggering bad boy where her entanglement in his mental illness and crimes leaves her ostracized from her church and community, to a good guy who offers to take her on a long, eventually romantic trip to California. Such a ‘nice’ guy… that even in their gorgeously romantic ballad ‘Thoroughfare’ it’s made clear that veneer is used to get what he wants, and the remaining half of the album shows the unbelievably bleak and grisly place he will take Ethel Cain to a graphic point that has to be heard to be believed. Honestly, if the atmosphere wasn’t note-perfect I’d almost say it swivels into a point too edgy to be believed, the sort of exploitation scene that you can’t really come back from, and the juxtaposition on the final song tests it all to the limit… I’m still kind of stunned Ethel Cain went there, and all from the album that kicks off with an 80s inflected anthemic banger ‘American Teenager’ with a guitar progression that mirrors a segment from Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin'!

Yeah, if this is where I think Ethel Cain knocks this album out of the park, it comes in a masterclass of framing, not just in the deeply held swells of aspirational Americana that wrap through every crevasse of the album, but also the bone-deep knowledge that it’s an American dream that not everyone can win, where the vast, reverb-soaked production is used to accentuate the vast loneliness and spaces that can feel both intoxicating but also intensely isolating. A major theme of this album is the cycle of generational trauma and how every step and attempt to escape it goes horrifically wrong, where the term ‘melodrama’ is completely valid because every choice the protagonist makes is driven on pure, desperate emotion… but for a traumatized woman who is desperately straining for real love outside of the brutal hell that believes it’s a brutal heaven, it feels emotionally true. So there is old-fashioned glamour and a country romance to the scenes that Ethel Cain paints with men who’ll use and exploit her… but she’s a reliable enough narrator in every song to highlight just how toxic it all is, be it immediately on ‘Western Nights’ or the slow build across the drugged out nightmare that proceeds from ‘Thoroughfare’ into the second half of the album, which reaches its absolute most terrifying point on ‘Ptolemaea’, a reference to Dante’s Inferno and a layer of hell reserved for those who betray guests in their homes. If there is ‘glamour’, a song like ‘Gibson Girl’ highlights just how much of it was drawn and traced by men for their own appetites, who proceed to pimp and abuse her even as she retreats behind a drugged out haze of autotune to dissociate from it all. And it’s heartbreaking for a protagonist who yearns so deeply to be taken advantage of and consumed, as she clings to a god that’s not answering anything until at ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ where instead of pulling from the words of a well-respected preacher and father who molested her to hit back harder, she finds forgiveness and seeks peace… and yet how much is her sacrifice all worth when her ‘good guy’ kills her and she looks on as there’s a very… Catholic parallel of what he does to her body. At least she finds an element of peace and relief even despite the visceral gore of it all, where there’s some actual stakes to the old ultraviolence that feels way too lived in and transgressive - Lana Del Rey would not dare to go to this place of sincerely brutal castigation of the lies of American fundamentalist Christianity and the systemic abuse it enables, to say nothing of the cannibalism!

And yes, it’s tired to bring this up again, but it highlights why any comparison between the two feels so deeply wrong and lazy, especially when bad writers claim one has already stripmined this territory which despite their assertions, Lana Del Rey has never originated nor owned. She may have finally developed some disillusionment with the restrictive gender roles and toxic masculinity by the time we finally got to Norman Fucking Rockwell! - an album that actually has worse pacing and momentum problems in comparison with the suffocating dreamlike wandering of Preacher’s Daughter which actually knows how to use its negative space - but it was never built to seriously challenge those power structures; she was privileged enough that when she got tired of the common people, she had exits, which allowed her melodrama to act as a retrograde fantasy easy enough for her and the audience to disavow. Whereas there is a very real cost to the freedom and love that Ethel Cain seeks out, there are far fewer exit strategies, where the generational and historical weight of it all presses down on someone already very fragile; the cost of an easy disavowal just isn’t on the table, especially as often as she tries and fails to fully escape. And she has less power - this is not the morally ambiguous girlboss who can fuck her way to the top, this is a more universal story of being trapped amidst violent systems operating under the guise of righteousness in which you still desperately want to believe; and while I won’t say Ethel Cain being a trans woman is a deliberate factor in the narrative, it does lead to some interesting bending of gender signifiers all across the album to match with the body horror to add a different bite to its most visceral moments.

That said, those who go into this album simply expecting slowcore shock value or pure nightmare fuel beyond a few scattered moments might be a bit underwhelmed; Preacher’s Daughter is an extremely slow burn and it wants you to feel every inch of that expanse… and even then, some might consider the sheer amount of exploitation and abuse to start feeling gratuitous. I would disagree with that assessment, mostly due to just how well Cain handles tone in her compositions and production, but for an album that can run very long with two instrumental interludes back to back with ‘August Underground’ immediately followed by ‘Televangelism’ - the former a reference to a notorious 2001 exploitation film, the latter a fractured moment of religious performativity - I can see where exasperation might kick in, especially if the framing juxtapositions with the subject matter start testing patience. For me… honestly, a lot less of an issue, mostly because the compositions and production have taken another leap and the album feels so immense in its scope and dramatic weight. Ethel Cain once again produced this all herself and while I could nitpick and say the synths on ‘American Teenager’ and the horns on ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ aren’t as well-blended as they could be, it’s really minor in the scope of both songs, where the album might be saturated in reverb but never desaturates the melodies or percussion or the quaking, underlying grooves, to say nothing of how she adds field recording texture to all the songs to accentuate the wild, humid, windswept tableaus. I love how ‘A House In Nebraska’ leans into the ponderous loneliness as the violin aches and guitar roars over the haunted mix accentuating her isolation lost in the middle of nowhere, I love how the muted electric guitar squeals around the keys as the booming drum highlights that dread she knows is just out of frame.on ‘Western Nights’, the stalking bassy blues that lets her cut loose and shred on ‘Family Tree’, or how she just lets the gorgeous acoustics textures shape the utterly lovestruck country tragedy of ‘Thoroughfare’. And while the most obvious bleak moment on the album comes with ‘Ptolemaea’ and her bone-chilling scream to emphasize one particular moment, I have to draw attention to where the most bleak and sick moments actually occur - how ‘Hard Times’ is a soft-focus bedroom pop/country moment in major keys despite everything that takes place within it that makes it feel like an Emily Scott Robinson song, to how the organs swell around the pianos where the drums feel ever so slightly off on ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ and it sounds like the best ballad we never got from 1989, or how the closing track ‘Strangers’ is one of the best dream country songs I’ve heard in years that knows the precise right moment to let the guitars erupt. And all of it is anchored in the sort of magnetic charisma and presence at this album’s core with Ethel Cain’s stunning vocal arrangements, be it spare and restrained to intensify that intimacy that reminds me a lot of Ian Noe at his darkest, or overdubbed for a choral arrangement that’s damn near symphonic; she’s described Florence Welch as an influence, but I’d argue Ethel Cain goes even further with just tremendous power that so many peers could never match.

…look, this is not for everyone, I’ll say it again: Preacher’s Daughter is the sort of crushing and colossal album that if you buy in will put you through the emotional ringer, and maybe it’s just my long-lingering fondness for gothic swell infusing the dream country Americana and a woman who can take us to Heaven and Hell and back. The writing is stripped down but poetic, making you feel every twisted turn of phrase, where it could have so easily come across as ‘tryhard’ or ‘forced’ and at least to me it never does. Melodramatic in its structure, sure, but this is exactly why I always say that melodrama does not have to be a bad thing when it makes the most of its epic swell and climax - and even then, I’d argue that so much of the framing is morally complex in its exploration of generational trauma and both men and women crushed underfoot in chasing that dream, where it demands you look hard at where you give sympathy, who you forgive, and who is worthy of grace. It’s SINNER GET READY for Gen Z… and at least for me, I’d argue it could well be better. This is one of the best albums of 2022, plain and simple - I would completely understand if you can’t get into it, but if you can… it’s something special.

4 Comments
7mo
THIS is the review this album needed. thank you so much for the depth and acuity of your review. I believe you understand it perfectly and your eloquence is up to the task of expressing what needed to be said. again, thank you.
6mo
♥️ ♥️ ♥️
5mo
Amazing review!!
4mo
Woah, this was an amazing review!
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