What happened to Ethel Cain? Despite the gags, Hayden Anhedönia’s project didn’t disappear at all. Just check out her Twitter, where she’s known to retweet memes her stans create and let off-the-wall, funny posts loose. Between last year’s monster EP Inbred and a slated performance at Pitchfork Music Festival, Cain is on a brilliant ascent. “Inbred” solidified her position as a force to be witnessed in American music as she wrestled with the uniquely Southern version of the American dream that shaped her young life. The divinity of gospel, the audacity of heartland rock and the frankness of 2010s Tumblr-era pop collide into an arresting narrative spectacle, portraying the experience of a woman who is intimately familiar with depraved violence, the gospel and the strict social hierarchies of the South and the Plains. The EPs have only revealed a portion of Cain’s lore, but on her whopping 75-minute debut LP Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain, the narrative figure and the musical sensation, manifests a breathtaking account of a woman, her mysterious partner and her troubled family.
Much as Inbred mangled Americana, ambient folk and slowcore into a terrifying sonic experiment, Preacher’s Daughter is a sound all its own. Imagine what would happen if singers as familiar as Bruce Springsteen or Nichole Nordeman were backed by Midwife or Sunn O))). The glamorous and aphrodisiac sound of Lana Del Rey is undoubtedly there, but the thematic and instrumental elements on Preacher’s Daughter possess a weightiness and impulse away from ironic glamorization of the American dream and toward outright criticism that render the comparison only so relevant. At times the record throbs with a noisy, immersive intensity before transitioning into the kind of epic guitar solos that decorated the cult of rock personalities in generations past. This collision of dark ambient and Def Leppard is uniquely American in the best way conceivable.
Cain painstakingly wrote and produced Preacher’s Daughter over four years with a little instrumental assistance from collaborators Matt Tomasi and Colyer, the latter of whom will be joining Cain on her first North American tour. The record opens on prologue “Family Tree (Intro)” with a murky recording of a Southern preacher—the preacher’s identity is a matter of speculation among fans—extolling the significance of the mother as an icon. Cain has an extensive history of playing with maternal iconography: The imprint through which she releases her records is called “Daughters of Cain” and her social media handles are @mothercain, largely as an intentional and playful entry into the cultivation of a stan community. Cain was fascinated by cults as a young child growing up in a strict Southern Baptist household (whose own atypicalities have been described as “cultish”) and by the cult of personality, first around the preacher and then around the pop star (Florence Welch proved an early influence). After the intro, Cain moves into the most upbeat song on the record, “American Teenager,” a synth- and guitar-heavy track with Springsteen-like curiosity around Americana, but even more biting criticism. Narrating the position of American teenagers, drunk and dying, the song is a solidarity anthem, one in which teenagers are not called upon to reinflate the vision of America the beautiful, but rather to advance camaraderie.
“A House in Nebraska” is one of several slow, sonorous ballads with cinematic, overwhelming imagery. The crashing piano chords, echoing toms and choir of guitars penetrate the atmosphere while Cain relays the story of herself and a mysterious partner’s transient lives and the horrors they endure. Whoever and wherever this partner is today is never revealed, but the pain of missing him and this home base in Nebraska gnaws at Cain throughout. Cain’s vocal range, in tone and in emotion, is on broad display. Just as compelling as the narrative is the bombastic instrumentation. The final minute of the nearly eight-minute ballad is where the guitar solo begins, swaying powerfully with a sharpness and rhythmic capacity reminiscent of arena-rock stars. The house in Nebraska itself returns on the softer, but just as poignant “Sun Bleached Flies,” the album’s second-to-last track, another power ballad in which Cain laments her detachment from faith and community, pondering how she will fight the demons that have marred her existence, how she will save herself from the pain of the past and present. “Western Nights” also heavily features the tumultuous relationship with the anonymous partner, of which desperation and fear are some of the most tangible features. At this juncture, Cain will stand by this partner through anything, no matter how little she has left to give to a counterpart so unstable.
“Family Tree” retains a sludge-like intensity with outlaw country embroidered within as Cain reveals the deadly agency her persona wields. Beyond just the tribulations of her relationship with her partner are clear undulations of strife within a complicated family network, a genealogy marked by violence on all fronts. “Hard Times” refers to familial strife again, particularly where Cain admits to fearing how badly she wants to emulate the fatherly authorities in her life who brought her harm. After these reflections, Cain moves on to “Thoroughfare,” a country-inspired epic. The sprawling track replaces the intensity of electric guitars with swelling vocals, reverberating drums and a cathartic whimsy. Paring back to acoustic guitars and harmonica later in the song adds an intoxicating patina only matched by the tambourine- and scat-led jam session that closes the song out.
Single “Gibson Girl” ups the sexuality to a level akin to Prince, but as Cain is quick to point out, sexuality on Preacher’s Daughter is often directly proximate to violence and death. She utters matter-of-factly: “You wanna fuck me right now / You wanna see me on my knees / You wanna rip these clothes off / And hurt me.” The song achieves a delicate mix of sultry and haunting. The haunt dials up to 11 on “Ptolemaea,” the record’s heaviest track, recalling the circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno reserved for sinners who trespass against others in the home. At this moment, Cain is at her most scornful, hollering with horror and anguish just as the guitars plunge into disarray and the occasional blast beat appears. “Ptolemaea” is horrifying and awe-striking; it is Cain at her most rock goddess. Incantations dedicated to the Daughters of Cain, their whore mothers, the children and more feel like the profound, disturbing utterances of a minister through whom the Holy Spirit is coursing. After that pummeling climax, two instrumental compositions play back-to-back. They could not be more distinct. “August Underground” is a doom-ambient track featuring low-register guitars, sirenic vocalizations and fuzz that are reminiscent of Boris at their gloomiest. “Televangelism” features an iridescent piano, echoing as if played in a cavernous midcentury church, and recalling Grouper’s Grid of Points. Towards the end, the piano is plagued by tape hiss that highlights a certain artificiality to televangelism.
The finale, “Strangers,” brings back the preacher’s monologue, this time on the paradise awaiting believers in death. If there is anything Cain picked up from her youth in strict Christian circles, it’s that endings are not always bad or permanent. An unhappy ending is not necessarily bad, because at least the unhappiness is over, and perhaps, whether in paradise or rapture, something else is coming. As a creative polymath, Cain’s universe has limitless potential—there is talk of additional albums, a novel and a feature film. Closing this album, this chapter, this character profile is not something that requires lamentation. As a whole, too, Preacher’s Daughter is nothing to lament—this record is a brutal achievement, exhibiting Cain’s mastery for synthesis, for bringing disparate elements of ambient, slowcore, classic rock, sexuality, violence and Christ into an epic package. The record is musically ingenious and emotionally jostling. Already, Cain stands out as an innovative musician, but Preacher’s Daughter produces a crater-deep impact that commands respect and attention. Where one may knock some of the power ballads for sameness, one might instead find consistency, an album grounded in the artist’s inspirations and narrative mission that is, above all, tantalizing. It is hard not to crave more.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He also arranges national & local shows at Cleveland’s legendary Grog Shop. He lives on Twitter @bigugly