With the arrival of her debut album, the delirious dreamscape of the gothic Americana-inspired Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain (the multi-genre project from Hayden Anhedönia) cements herself as a formidable powerhouse of an artist. With her impulse for theatricality in every aspect of production, from the conceptual narratives which drive the plot of the album, the witchy aesthetic she’s crafted for herself, or the bitter mood clashing against baroque structures and pop vocals, it all lends itself to what is an astonishing piece of work and one of the most exciting feature-length releases in years.
Beginning the 13-track album, “Family Tree: Intro” plays with ghostly production, befitting an album where the main storyline tracks the fictional Ethel Cain as a young woman in 1991 whose abusive past leads to her untimely and tragic death. As an album that is already overflowing with melancholy and a pervasive sense of loss, to read further into the story crafted is to find some of the songs near unlistable. On the other hand, they’re that good, so you will, but with it comes the extra weight of a nihilistic story as gothic as her styling suggests, with even greater pathos spun like cobwebs made to engulf you. The buildup or the instrumental drop, to any of her lengthy and novelistic songs as chapters, be it the kick drum or a Journey-esque guitar solo, leads way to convulsing, cathartic, crescendos.
This build-up and her striking duality are seen best in “American Teenager,” a song that splits off from the given narrative as a standalone and, arguably her best song to date. Her voice and musicianship are tailor-made to haunt cathedrals, to echo and reverberate against gothic architecture, ricocheting between worn stone pews. Yet, “American Teenager” allows her a chance to feature her equal credibility in being a modern pop star. With its Taylor Swift style, diary entry lyricism, sweet vocals, and insertion of thrilling, radio rock flamboyance in its guitar refrain and solo, she manages to utilize mainstream motifs but molded them into something singularly hers.
There’s little whimsy here. Instead, the album is haunted by her songwriting, her personification as an artist, and her ability to infuse a real sense of morbid horror and destiny by way of tragedy. Ethel Cain as told in this iteration is a young woman who fell in love and whose heart still feels vacant without him, who had an abusive father, who was kidnapped, then murdered. It’s bleak and it’s miserable but, to view it through an artist’s lens, through Anhedönia’s lens, the point is to inject misery with something serene, ugliness with beauty, death with aspirations. Cain’s greatest trick is constructing an album so beautiful that it’s easy at first to miss the tragedy embedded in the lyrics.
It’s little surprise that the singer first envisioned the album as a screenplay as there’s a cinematic edge to her songwriting, demonstrated in songs such as “A House in Nebraska” and “Ptolemaea”. The former begins with heavy minor chords but transforms slowly in power. Despite lyrics that detail Ethel’s longing for her ex-boyfriend Willoughby Tucker and that emptiness that’s consuming her, the instrumentation plays in opposition, uncertainty metamorphosing into musical assertion with billowing vocals. On the other end of the spectrum, “Ptolemaea” achieves what can only be described as a musical scream, and that’s even before Anhedönia lets lose her own tormented wail. Distorted and echoing, the song manages to embody the feeling of loss of control to dizzying effect with its doom metal influence.
Despite the sorrowful nature of the story, there remains a playfulness and curiosity in her musicality as she flirts with genres. “Thoroughfare” is a country-inspired number through and through, with featured harmonicas and a playoff that culminated in a tambourine-led jam session. To contrast that light and airy jubilance in the instrumentation with lyrics that introduce the character that will be her abductor is yet another trick, a way of lulling the listener into a false sense of safety. The album pulsates with the eclectic guitars, a hazy atmosphere, and percussion to match the character’s mindset.
Elsewhere, the album drifts through ’80s synth, classic arena and Journey and Def Leppard inspired rock, power ballads that question faith and family ties, and musical breakdowns that work as key features in the evolving story of the album’s character. The two instrumental numbers act as mirroring songs in gorgeous feats of structuring. Chilling vocals and intense, dread-inducing, ambient noise gives way to trilling piano. In the latter, “Televangelism,” the pace retains a somber pace with tone inflections that offer deceptive light. Her songs echo movement, emulating both the feeling of airborne weightlessness while simultaneously exploring the murky middle of relief from pain and regret from loss.
As one of the explosive power ballads, “Sun Bleached Flies,” is a close runner-up to the best song on the album. Her view after the ascent is a spellbinding journey that utilizes lyrical throwbacks, cyclical verses, and synth breakdowns to stunning effect. She sings “God loves you, but not enough to save you” and a choir of voices sings back up in harmony. At the start of the verse, she sings about how much she’d love to be able to sing in church again. It’s clever, beautiful, and utterly heartbreaking.
It’s a number about making peace with her death, singing of her once love, “I’m still praying for that house in Nebraska/By the highway, out on the edge of town/Dancing with the windows open/I can’t let go when something’s broken/It’s all I know and it’s all I wanna know.”
Death and rebirth, destructive fatality, and the catharsis that comes from being at peace are all explored, tied up with a sense of finality in “Strangers.” Acting as an ending grace note in which the character delivers a sendoff prayer of sorts as she watches her mother from above, she sings;
“Don’t think about it too hard/Or you’ll never sleep a wink at night again/Don’t worry ’bout me and these green eyes/Mama, just know that I love you (I do)/And I’ll see you when you get here”
It’s a moment that dances with brutalism but ends with an air of hope. It’s a masterwork of tone and atmosphere, showcasing the love the character possesses for her mother regardless of no longer being with her and of the peace, she wishes for her as she awaits their reunion. Like the rest of her album, she manages to capture a storm cloud in her music with the hints of better days and sunny skies lurking just beyond.
Ethereal and devastating, Preacher’s Daughter is a startling demonstration of talent by Ethel Cain. The album cultivates and brandishes a voice worth stopping and listening to and, ultimately, fully submerging to.