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Ethel Cain and the Triumphant Devastation of Preacher’s Daughter

By Sadie Gugliotta


 In painfully precise yet broadly feeling brushstrokes, Hayden Anhedönia, through the moniker of Ethel Cain, recounts the story of a young woman haunted by the rigid and often merciless restraints imposed upon her by her evangelical upbringing. Through her escape from the church and repudiation of their antiquated expectations, she encounters abuse and danger at the hands of an impassioned lover turned mercurial murderer. Preacher’s Daughter is fiction in substance, but in feeling, very much echoes Anhedönia’s experiences growing up as the trans daughter of a Southern Baptist deacon in Florida. With macabre, brutal, and often beautiful detail, a world of inescapable tragedy blossoms through the ivory peals of Anhedönia’s lyrical agony.


The album opens with “Family Tree (Intro)”, an eerie introduction to Cain’s insular religious upbringing: a distorted voice of male evangelizing disintegrates, bleeding into Cain’s low, cloying vocals, which cut through muffled bass riffs with religious iconography and echoing themes of intergenerational trauma: “Jesus can always reject his father/But he cannot escape his mother’s blood.” 


Cain’s “American Teenager” serves as a beautifully incisive contrast to the vast dismal landscape of the album's intro: this song soars with explosive harmonies and grand guitars reminiscent of any 80’s pop-metal track. It is arguably one of the most poignant points of the album, indignant in its searingly bright hope and idyllic small-town quintessence. She sings, “It's just not my year/But I'm all good out here,” lending listeners a fleeting sense of hope soon wrecked by the foreboding tragedy that lurks underneath this undiluted portrait of small-town America.


One of the most compelling aspects of the album is its stellar storytelling. Cain’s experiences are examined with a strange tenderness, surgically vivisected until the anatomy of her adolescence is laid bare and vulnerable; in “Western Nights,” she details the suffocating, pious devotion she commits to her partner: “ I'm never gonna leave you, baby/Even if you lose what's left of your mind/'Cause you know I'll be right there beside you/Riding through all these western nights.” Hollowly echoing piano and sparse guitars swell to an all-encompassing churn like that of a whirlpool, enclosing upon her with sullen isolation masquerading as love. This song encapsulates the circuity of the album, the history that marks Cain like a palimpsest as the residue of her childhood. “Hard Times,” explores Cain’s relationship with her father. His abuse and neglect are retold with clear, forthright reflection: “Tell me a story about how it ends/Where you're still the good guy,/I'll make pretend/'Cause I hate this story/Where happiness ends and dies with you.” The simplicity of this song is delivered with tremulous beauty, dense in its delivery of trauma through the smothering innocence of a child, set to lilting lullaby instrumentals.

This album, in essence, is a cinematic experience; it reaches its terrifying climax in “Ptolemaea,” which documents the ultimate death of the body of Ethel Cain. It is so deeply uncomfortable - soundtracked by a slowed, echoing heartbeat, the insistent stuffy buzzing of flies, the sleekly dim humming of an evil force in search of a sacrifice. “Ptolemaea” is mythic in its gruesomeness, an orchestra of melodically pleading stops cresting in soul-splitting shrieks of virulent anguish. Cain has been killed by her partner in an act of primordial betrayal - it’s almost biblical in its painful irony.


 The songs that follow act as a sonic expression of spiritual transcendence; with hymnal harmonies and eulogized hope, everything settles in a sense of curious calm - simultaneously an abscess and a salve that acknowledges the atrocity of what has just occurred (“Am I making you feel sick?” building in its emotionality with each repetition in “Strangers”) as Cain finally finds the strength to forgive herself. She grasps peace in death’s finality.


Through Preacher’s Daughter, Anhedönia makes tangible what is often left unsaid; Ethel Cain acts as a vehicle to express the emotional wreckage that can result from the realities of modern-day religious extremism. In a world increasingly intolerant towards the queer community in particular, Preacher’s Daughter is the manifestation of a worst-case scenario - a landscape of shattered Americana: grime, cigarettes, and neon-hued infatuation veiled in binding moralization often imposed upon figures like Cain - herself named for the biblical character fabled to have killed his brother Abel out of a blinding desire for Abel’s wife. Cain’s story is rooted in betrayal, vindicating the cumulative unease felt across the country by providing something material to fear: because if there’s no monster under our beds, no devil next door, then what are we all so afraid of?

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