Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain
By Kylie Arbini | Top Tracks: Family Tree, Ptolemaea, and American Teenager
I’m not a particularly religious person myself. While I occasionally attend temple with my sibling and use God’s name in vain at the slightest inconvenience, I most commonly find myself attributing my struggles to the fact that someone up there has it out for me. Who is that someone? I’m not sure, but Ethel Cain seems to know. In her debut album Preacher’s Daughter, Cain details her journey with God, without God, and through hell. Literally.
The lore surrounding this long-awaited album from indie and southern gothic darling, known personally as Hayden Silas Anhedonia, is extensive and experimental. Still, it does not outshine the pieces of music that accompany the story and explains it at depths that border on uncomfortable. Like any good tale of torment and terror, Preacher’s Daughter doesn’t stray from the disturbing, but not without misguiding audiences with a glimpse of joy first. The second track, “American Teenager,” acts as the opening sequence for a horror film: the family is happy, the house is new (albeit haunted), and the town’s misery is hidden under misguided patriotism. Cain describes this suburban somberness through bitter acceptance captured in simplistic lyricism, which claims that “It’s just not [her] year, but [she’s] all good out here.”
Whatever goodness Cain can obtain at the start of this album’s journey is quickly dismantled by inescapable generational and religious trauma, first witnessed through lost love in “A House in Nebraska” and continued more directly on the six-minute epic that is “Family Tree.” Yet, it isn’t until “Hard Times” that a glimpse into the extent of her familial abuse is granted. The terrors that stalk Ethel come from within her home and are distributed directly from her father, who she sings praise to in her desire to emulate him but expresses fear of ever being anything like him. This turmoil leads her on the run in the last heartwarming venture of the album, “Thoroughfare.”
From here on out, Ethel Cain provides little to no reprieve, forcing listeners to rot in the story’s darkness as it spirals into even darker territory. On “Gibson Girl,” she draws inspiration from indie heavyweight Lana Del Rey as she explores her sexuality and the consequences of desire while still shackled to a mindset that rejects secular ideology. But, unfortunately, she abandons any outside influence for the most original track of Preacher’s Daughter, “Ptolemaea,” which focuses more on dialogue than direct singing. From distorted vocals to a repeated plea for a stop that progresses to the point of carnal screaming, the song has garnered notoriety due to its bone-chilling terror.
The instrumental tracks “August Underground” and “Televangelism” that follow continue this bleak shift. Both tracks act as Ethel Cain’s death march, needing no lyrics to supplement the imagination of listeners. The atmosphere created by the tracks devoid of lyrics demonstrates the wasteland of death that she’ll soon be greeted with as she meets her untimely fate. Before this, however, she allows for reflection, recalling a common theme once sung at the choirs she frequented growing up: “God loves you, but not enough to save you.” The final track, “Strangers,” proves this sentiment true as Ethel Cain alludes to her murder.
While the density and lyrical content of Preacher’s Daughter diminishes the album’s replay value for some, it reminded me that listening to music is much more significant—much more substantial—than how many times you’ve heard a particular song or album. Music has always been about telling a story, placing an individual into shoes they wouldn’t usually try on. Sometimes the size is too big, too small even, but it’s not about how it looks on you but how it feels to try it on. So while it might be frightening, I recommend everyone try Preacher’s Daughter for a size.