Even if it wasn’t a brilliant album, I would admire the sheer ambition of Ethel Cain’s debut album, preacher’s daughter.
The first in a proposed trilogy of albums tracing the spiral of intergenerational trauma from a central tragedy, the album tells the story of Ethel Cain herself, a trans girl from Alabama, raised in the evangelical church and grappling with the emotional scars of her father. sexual abuse. Eventually, she runs away from home and meets the wrong guy, who ends up murdering her. It’s dark, gothic, and not for everyone. Buried within, however, is sound that captures something elemental about places and themes that American pop culture rarely dares to touch.
Cain begins many songs with just the whispering thrill of his voice on a spare guitar or piano playing a memorable hook, but eventually each track turns into a soundscape that seems to stretch in every direction. Simple instrumentation gives way to a lush, full sound, but built on dark, buzzy minor chords. This music is for big skies filled with thunder.
The fact that the Ethel Cain in the album dies and the Ethel Cain who wrote and recorded the album is alive should tell you that the story of the album is a heavily fictionalized depiction of the world in which Cain been brought up. He has the rich characterization of Truman Capote In cold blood or the works of Flannery O’Connor, and it offers a vision of the dark heartland of rural, white America that I haven’t seen so frankly attempted in folk art in ages.
The story, however, goes beyond the album itself. Cain is the alter ego of 24-year-old singer-songwriter Hayden Anhedönia, who is a transgender woman who grew up in the southern evangelical church but hasn’t led a life as tragic as her own fiction. . She does, according to this Flood Magazine profile, spends a lot of time traveling around America in her truck on a whim, which may explain why she’s such a keen observer of human nature. (I’ll call him Cain for the rest of this article because he’s credited with writing and producing Daughter of the preacher.)
The first thing you will notice when listening preacher’s daughter is its spread. Its 13 tracks are 75 minutes in total, and only a few are less than five minutes long, the album’s centerpiece, “Thoroughfare”, is nearly 10 minutes long.
This sprawl is also evident in the sound of the album. Cain’s viola is reminiscent of a Lana Del Rey slowly rising into the sky during the abduction, but the overall production boasts an impressive sweep. Cain’s songs – she recorded three EPs before preacher’s daughter – have always been built on booming pop hooks, but preacher’s daughter seems most interested in what it would be like to soar, even when portraying horrifying desperation.
Cain’s talent for storytelling is perhaps the biggest reason to recommend preacher’s daughter. Yes, the overall story of the album is beautiful and full of sad grandeur. But the world of the album is constructed by the smallest lyrical details, which consist of carefully chosen turns of phrase that convey a much bigger picture than might initially be suggested.
In “American Teenager” (one of the album’s first singles), Cain sings that she “grew up under a yellow light on the street”. In “Sun Bleached Flies”, she describes the people she grew up with as “sun-bleached flies sitting on the windowsill, waiting for the day when they will escape”. In “Hard Times,” the song that most directly confronts Cain’s father’s sexual abuse, she implores him, “Tell me a story about how it ends, where you’re still the good guy.” I will pretend.
preacher’s daughter is one of the few recent works of “trauma” art that truly captures how it affects a person’s thought processes. The album descends inexorably towards Cain confronting his father’s abuse, but realizing what happened to him is not enough to escape the cycle. She runs away and finds herself caught in another abusive situation. The trauma is not a discrete event stuck in one’s past; it is an echo, which fades but slowly. When you’re stuck in this echo, escaping it seems impossible.
preacher’s daughter perhaps works even better as a chronicle of the end of the American dream of someone who never adhered to its promise to begin with. There is still too little art made by America’s Gen-Zers to determine the generational touchstones of artists of the generation, but Cain’s deep, sneering skepticism of America’s promise to its people suggests that this is a possible theme that we will hear more about in the years to come. Even more painfully, Cain knows America has let her down, but she still seems to want this to be where she was told it was. She stopped believing in America, but she is very upset that America never believed in her.
I described Cain above as Hayden Anhedönia’s alter ego, and that’s probably the best way to describe her. It also seems a bit too simple to me. Being trans is often about realizing how much more slippery and complicated identity is than one would like. There is no simple answer to “who are you”, because everyone is a multiplicity of selves, jostling for attention. preacher’s daughter conveys this idea through the dissociative power of trauma and America’s broken promise. Life is beautiful and life is an endless tragedy. It can be both.
preacher’s daughter is available on all major music streaming platforms. It is not yet available on vinyl or CD. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.