Preacher’s Daughter suggests fascinating and unpredictable future stardom for Ethel Cain.
Ethel Cain arrived right on time, America currently enraptured with the style and cultural signifiers of its southern and midwestern states (a reaction to “Trump voter” media voyeurism, or the lasting legacy of American Honey?), which the Florida-born, Alabama-based singer-songwriter embodies and performs intuitively. The severe, popstar persona of Hayden Anhedönia, the Ethel Cain project is at once an aesthetic and thematic piece with a number of other cult, SoundCloud contemporaries (think Sematary), yet ultimately fairly stands out within this milieu, quietly traversing a genre range running from pop country to shoegaze. Having attracted an appropriately fervent fan base over her last couple years of activity (three EPs and a generous library of singles and covers), Cain, still self-releasing through her Daughters of Cain label, now takes an assured, ambitious step forward with first studio album Preacher’s Daughter.
Clocking in at a feature-length 75 minutes and devised in two-act structure, Preacher’s Daughter has Ethel detailing her own sad, grisly demise at the hands of a violent lover. A modern-day, J.T. Leroy-type narrative with supernatural, southern gothic trappings, the album’s 13 songs chart a fatalistic course for its protagonist, from an abusive father to an abusive boyfriend, pursuing an unreal notion of American freedom to morbid ends. Though, with a crafty pop songwriting sensibility to match the skillful, classical storytelling, Preacher’s Daughter can be appreciated without the listener knowing the more specific details and context informing Cain’s lyrics, the larger narrative is apparent and felt, if not obviously linear on first listen. Also working as a series of individual tableaux and sketches, Preacher’s Daughter nimbly walks the line between the personal and the cultural, autobiography and broader cultural metaphor, obscuring where they come apart until macabre, Poe-esque closers “Sun Bleached Flies” and “Strangers,” as well as the otherworldly instrumentals (“Televangelism” and “August Underground”) that lead in to them. That latter track, “August Underground” (titled for Fred Vogel’s limit-testing, found-footage serial killer movie of the same name), suggests the gruesome extremes Cain’s music angles toward, though even at its most disturbed (the dark, doomy “Ptolemaea” on this project), it’s always interestingly offset by her penchant for reworking pop sonics. Early tracks like “American Teenager” and “A House in Nebraska” read as playful send-ups of the romanticism and relative restraint of industry artists like Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen in their songs about life in America’s Heartland, but Cain also has the musicianship to back up her passive critique, pulling off rousing country western pop on the former track before sliding into downbeat folk. You can also glimpse the influence of acts like Mazzy Star and Smashing Pumpkins, but never in a showy postmodern, genre-bending way, instead asserting itself as the natural throughline between these points of influence. Grand in scope without coming off as overly determined, Preacher’s Daughter suggests fascinating and unpredictable stardom for Ethel Cain.
Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 4.