Ethel Cain – ‘Preacher’s Daughter’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Helen Kirbo

Surely you haven’t heard a more ambitious album concept in 2022 than this: a 105-minute concept album – the first installment of a trilogy – that traces the journey of a character escaping a fundamentalist home only to meet a gruesome end at the hands of a cannibalistic psychopath. All of this is done while combining the sounds of slowcore, traditional Americana, and Lana Del Rey-style dark pop. Such a weighty and ambitious attempt could easily be a disaster, especially when made by someone in their early 20’s making their very first album. Instead, the fascinating Hayde Silas Anhedonia, or Ethel Cain, turns Preacher’s Daughter into one of the most surprising thrills of 2022; an instant cult classic of epic proportions. 

The world of Preacher’s Daughter is vast and eclectic – the album has been alternately described as “folk,” “goth,” “Americana,” “pop” and, in parts, “ambient.” It’s a fool’s errand trying to predict where Ethel will go next across the album’s hour-and-a-quarter runtime. The album’s big, acclaimed single “American Teenager” is a maximalist pop banger that sounds like Taylor Swift’s Fearless if Fearless covered physical violence, religious isolation, and the false promises of the American dream. The fourth track “Western Nights” meanwhile is a gothic pop number that gives the most credence to the Lana Del Rey comparisons that Cain has frequently received and begrudgingly accepted during this album cycle. A bad-boy-glorifying, distortion-heavy song, it is packed with hyper-American imagery and disarmingly sincere confessions of love. It ends on the uncharacteristically hopeful note, “I could be ok” that for a moment almost makes you buy into Cain’s optimism and forget about the male protagonist’s violent, ultimately murderous tendencies. 

It becomes harder to find obvious points of comparison between Cain and mainstream artists in the album’s second half – where the grand narrative arc really comes together and Cain’s idiosyncrasies take center stage. The most accurate descriptor of album highlight “Ptolemaea” would be if Lingua Ignota decided to cover Florence and The Machine. But even that doesn’t fully account for the hushed repetitions of hell-imagery followed by gradually growing cries of “make it stop” that peak with a terrifying, feral scream. 

Two of the final four songs – “August Underground” and “Televangelism” – are entirely instrumental. Produced and written by Anhedonia herself, they prove that she has just as much to offer as a composer as she does as a lyricist. The former is supposed to represent Cain’s failed attempt to run away from her killer; with a sudden, unsettling loud-quiet dynamic unfolding throughout. “Televangelism,” meanwhile, represents the ascent to heaven; somber and affecting, it finds Anhedonia alone at the piano. 

The following, final two songs – “Sun Bleached Flies” and “Strangers” – are sung from beyond the grave and find Cain’s songwriting reaching new terrific heights. The former is a heart-wrenching number that sees Cain wishing hopelessly to return to the simple things in life – pining for Sundays sat in Church pews listening to the choir sing. The latter, if not Cain’s best song to date, is certainly the most succinct display of her immense talents. It’s filled with alternately gruesome imagery of her flesh being digested in her killer’s stomach and tragic descriptions of her mother viewing her daughter’s image on the missing section of a milk carton in the grocery store. The song swells in its latter half, filled with suffocating repetitions of “Am I making you feel sick?” and tear-jerking addresses made directly from the character of Cain to her mother. But the song also proves that Cain doesn’t need grand arrangements or relentless repetition to make her words stick. The album’s most affecting line is tucked in the middle of the song’s chorus, “With my memory restricted to a polaroid in evidence.” 

Written by: Tom Williams

Leave a Reply