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Never   Mind

Preacher's Daughter

Review By Eline Klaessens

On May 13, 2022, after the releases of her EPs Carpet Bed  (2019), Golden Age (2019), and Inbred (2021), Hayden  Silas Anhedönia, better known under the stage name Ethel  Cain, introduced the world to her debut album Preacher’s  Daughter. The American singer-songwriter tells the story  of the fictional character Ethel Cain in the thirteen tracks  that constitute this 76-minute, almost entirely self 

produced concept album. Though Ethel Cain and Hayden  Anhedönia are different people, Anhedönia did take  inspiration from her own experiences growing up as a  trans woman in a rural Southern Baptist community when  writing the life story of her character, Ethel Cain. Lyrics  full of heavy subject matter, including religious trauma,  domestic violence, sexual violence, and drug abuse, are  paired with a melancholic dreampop with heavy Southern

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Gothic influences, reminiscent of artists like Lana Del  Rey and Florence + The Machine. However, as mentioned in an article by The Guardian, Anhedönia  does not shy away from incorporating hazy ambient, rock, doom metal, or gothic country elements  in her music either, making her sound one of a kind. Though all the tracks on this album can be  appreciated individually, they truly flourish when the context of the rest of the album is considered.  The Line of Best Fit, Crack, Sputnikmusic, and Gigwise all rewarded Preacher’s Daughter with the  title of best album of 2022, and with its placement in countless other ‘Best Albums of 2022’ lists,  the success of Preacher’s Daughter is undeniable.

The album opens with Family Tree (Intro), the track that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The  song opens with muffled audio of a Southern preacher speaking. This tells the listener something  about Ethel Cain’s whereabouts, but it also reveals her ties to the church, which also become clear  through lyrics that contain Christian imagery (“These crosses all over my body/Remind me of who I used to be”).  

With a voice drenched in reverb, the artist sings lyrics that give the listener an insight into Ethel’s troubled home  situation: “Jesus can always reject his father/But he cannot escape his mother's blood” and “The fates already fucked  me sideways/Swinging by my neck from the family tree."  These lyrics also reference the intergenerational trauma  that this album deals with. 

The second track, American Teenager, stands out from the other tracks because of its ‘heartland-rock pomp and beaming guitars’, as Evan Rytlewski said in a Pitchfork review. A critical message about the illusion of the American dream is disguised in an unusually conventional sound compared to the rest of Ethel Cain’s repertoire. Created through a masterful fusion of rock elements, such as a guitar sample from Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, and pop elements that bring to mind artists like Taylor Swift. At the center of this song is Ethel’s identity as an American teenager and the religious, football player-worshipping American culture she was raised in. Anhedönia told Pitchfork that it was supposed to be a critique of the unattainable expectations that are placed on youth. The formula of this track has proven to be successful because, with over 50 million streams on Spotify alone, it is Ethel Cain’s most streamed song.


A House In Nebraska starkly contrasts with its pop-like predecessor. The slowly paced buildup of the almost 8-minute-long track starts off with lone, pervasive piano tones and ends with a dramatic assembly of slow drums and guitar. Whereas this song tells the story of lament and yearning for Ethel’s former lover Willoughby Tucker (“You and me against the world/You were my man and I your girl”), the song Western Nights tells the listener about Ethel’s current reality and relationship with Logan Phelps. Accompanied by melancholy guitar, piano, and drums, the lyrics paint a picture of an abusive relationship. Despite Logan’s temper and violent tendencies (“I watched him show his love through shades of black and blue/Starting fights at the bar across the street like you do”), Ethel is too dependent on her partner to get out of the situation (“I'm never gonna leave you baby/Even if you lose what's left of your mind”). In Family Tree, the song that is referenced in the title of the first track, a slow-burning tension is created through the use of bass guitar, ominous ambient sounds, sensual guitar, and occasional church bells. Genius annotations reveal that Ethel is on the run from the cops at this point, after her partner Logan died as a result of a police shootout that followed his bank robbery. Cain shows the lethal agency her persona possesses, causing conflict within a convoluted family network characterized by constant violence. The first act of the album is closed out by Hard Times, a song that testifies to intense vulnerability. Ethel’s crystal-clear voice can be heard singing about the sexual abuse her father subjected her to as a child. She contemplates her relationship with him in lyrics such as “I was too young/To noticе/That some types of love could bе bad” and “I'm tired of you, still tied to me.” Because of their repetitive nature, the lyrics in Hard Times give the listener a sense of the longevity of the sexual abuse that Ethel suffered. It is an effective tool to communicate a feeling of hopelessness. The 5-minute-long track has a rich soundscape. Nature sounds, like the chirping of birds, add an element of lightness to the deeply melancholic track and make sure the listener doesn’t get lost in the tragedy of the situation.

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Despite its initially daunting length of almost 10 minutes, the track Thoroughfare is a breath of fresh air on the album. With its heavily country and blues-influenced sound, it manages to capture the feeling of a long drive through a rural area on a warm summer day. The darkness and heavy subject matter of the previous songs are swapped out for young love and a feeling of newly found hope in this song. The young Ethel runs away from home and meets Isaiah, who offers her a ride. The two go on a trip to California and find themselves attracted to another (“'Cause in your pickup truck with all of your dumb luck is the only place I think I'd ever wanna be”). Things finally seem to be looking up for Ethel, until Isaiah begins feeding her drugs and pimping her out. This part of the story is told in the track Gibson Girl, which differs greatly from its predecessor on both a sonic and lyrical level. The sensual, guitar-heavy song is full of distortion and reverb, which ingeniously conveys Ethel’s intoxicated state. The lyrics are explicitly sexual and almost crudely matter-of-factly. Gibson Girl’s dark, ominous ambient outro is indicative of the misfortune that is yet to follow. The track Ptolemaea, which is centered around Ethel’s drug induced hallucinations and her confrontation with darkness, is nothing short of nightmarish.  Heavily  distorted vocals that seem to


personify the darkness Ethel is facing are fused with dark ambient  music, the buzzing of flies, and haunting vocals. Ptolemaea reaches its crescendo in a desperate  scream from Ethel that encapsulates the feeling of desperation and female rage masterfully. In the  final part of the song, Ethel’s connection to Christianity once again takes center stage when the  distorted voice says a prayer. The tension almost becomes tangible in the atmospheric instrumental,  August Underground, that follows. It continues the dark, disturbing ambiance of Ptolemaea and  contains a punching sound that resembles the gunshot that Isaiah fires to end Ethel’s life. 

August Underground transitions into Televangelism, the instrumental that symbolizes Ethel’s ascension into heaven. The sporadic piano tones in this track embody a sort of uninhibited, childlike wonder that makes the listener feel as though Ethel has finally found true freedom. The bittersweet feeling that comes with this newly found freedom is signified by the slightly distorted piano tones at the end of the song, because the young girl had to be murdered before she could truly exist freely. Singing from heaven, Ethel makes peace with her death and life full of hardships in the Sun Bleached Flies. In this track, heavily inspired by the gospel she heard growing up, Ethel seems to remember the traumatic memories she had previously repressed and forgives the people who have harmed her: “I forgive it all as it comes back to me.” She expresses the comfort she finds in prayer while also acknowledging that God has been unable to save her from misfortune during her lifetime: “What I wouldn't give to be in church this Sunday/Listening to the choir, so heartfelt, all singing/God loves you, but not enough to save you.” She dedicates the end of her song to her one and only true love, Willoughby, by referring back to the house in Nebraska.


With the arrival of the track Strangers, Preacher’s Daughter comes to an end. Like Family Tree (Intro), this song  starts with a muffled audio fragment of a Southern preacher speaking. Whereas the drums, guitar,  and vocals start off dreamy and subdued, they epically build up towards the end of the song in true  Ethel Cain style. Strangers concludes the story of Ethel Cain that ends in Isaiah cannibalizing her  (“If I'm turning in your stomach and I'm making you feel sick”) after keeping her in his freezer  (“Freezer bride, your sweet divine”). 


Ethel Cain’s concept album Preacher’s Daughter is a masterclass in storytelling. Even if the listener  is not aware of the detailed storyline, the album can still be enjoyed and appreciated on a multitude  of levels. Hayden Anhedönia draws you into her world from the start through her atmospheric songs. I predict that the buildups in the many long songs will make this album stand the test of time, since their pay-off remains effective for every listen. Preacher’s Daughter’s carefully crafted and unique  blend of 

genres makes it one of a kind. Set against the backdrop of the American countryside, Ethel  Cain’s dark story is worth telling. Anhedönia writes about heavy topics that are easy to shy away  from, and in doing so she provides visibility for those struggling to navigate their religious journey,  those dealing with intergenerational trauma, victims of sexual abuse, victims of domestic violence, victims of drug abuse, as well as young girls who are simply trying to navigate their identity and  trying to find their place in the world. Preacher’s Daughter is a lyrical and sonic rollercoaster, but its uniqueness and abundance of emotion makes the ride worthwhile. 

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