Album Review

Albums as Narratives: Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain

todayJuly 27, 2022 56

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Clara Blankenship

Music Journalist

When I first heard Ethel Cain’s album Preacher’s Daughter, I was underwhelmed. Do not get me wrong, I recognized how gorgeous it was, but I felt I was missing the point of connection. I found a Fader podcast interview with her on Spotify a few weeks ago that came out after her release. I relistened to the album afterwards, and my experience completely changed. 

Ethel Cain is a project created by musician Hayden Anhedonia. Her most recent release and a concept album, Preacher’s Daughter, is written from the perspective of a fictional character, Ethel Cain. Originally written as a screenplay, Preacher’s Daughter tells a stunningly haunting story of Cain’s upbringing, teenage years, and ultimately her death in the excruciating track “Ptolemaea” towards the end of the album. 

Anhedonia’s own individual experiences shine through Cain’s story and are exaggerated to extremes throughout the album’s narrative. In the Fader interview, she describes her obsession with the “intersection between mundane and fantastical” as she tells a Lynchian inspired story of the underbelly of Midwest and suburban life and filled with themes about religion and loss of naivete.

Cain’s journey in the album begins with her difficulty growing up in a restrictive family, being forced to fit into a traditional, puritanical role while exploring her trans identity. She desires freedom from her parent’s expectations and begins to find it in the track “American Teenager.”

I was originally thrown off by the pop, upbeat sound of “American Teenager” given the fact that Anhedonia adamantly denies claims that she is a pop artist. After looking at the track through the lens of Ethel Cain’s story, I found that the optimistic lyrics and synths demonstrate her hope of having the traditional, ideal teenage experience. The simplicity of this song reflects the character’s hopeful innocence and excitement of self-discovery.

I find much solace in Cain’s story, as I had a similar upbringing and have like many of us experienced the disillusionment of growing up. After “American Teenager,” the album slowly descends into hopelessness, as Ethel deals with relationship difficulties, exploitation, and being kidnapped. Her relationship with her family grows more tumultuous, as described in one of my favorite tracks, “Family Tree.” She grows distant from her past, singing “these crosses all over my body remind me of who I used to be.”

The melancholic feelings of the album reach a climax in the track “Hard Times,” detailing her depressive episode as she grapples with self-hatred and frustration with others, specifically men in her life. “Gibson Girl” further explores these romantic relationships as she is used and manipulated. The track has a sultry sound, alluding to her confusion between true romance and being taken advantage of. 

“Ptolemaea” follows “Gibson Girl” and provides a serious shift in the story, as Ethel Cain is kidnapped and eaten by a man whose voice can be heard taunting her throughout the song. The climax of the narrative is reached as Cain screams for her captor to stop and shoegaze instrumentation wails along with her. 

Preacher’s Daughter ends with multiple piano ballads, emphasizing the cinematic aspect of the album, as the music grieves Ethel’s passing and gives the feeling of watching ending credits rolling on the screen.

When seen from the perspective of storytelling, my love for this album grew tremendously. The artistic choices I once perceived as bland or overdone shifted to a deep appreciation for the purpose behind the instrumental simplicity and lyric driven production. 

Ethel Cain is a cathartic way for Anhedonia to share her experiences and express emotions in a way that she would be unable to in another way. Creating a character and a concept album creates an outlet to indirectly speak about her difficulties and allows for a deeper impact on the listener.

Albums are traditionally a compilation of songs made during a certain period of an artist’s journey. Anhedonia’s choice to use the album format as a narrative is incredibly effective and suggests that an album’s function can expand past its usual use, entering the territory of a novel or a film. I love how she gives each track unique sonic and lyrical qualities to represent phases and shifts throughout Ethel’s life, as it details the beautiful melancholy that comes with the highs and lows of a life lived. 

Although the character Ethel Cain is dead, her story is far from over, as Anhedonia plans to expand on the lives of her mother and grandmother in further albums and other media mediums. After Preacher’s Daughter, I am fully invested in Ethel Cain and am extremely excited to learn more about her character and the story that she and Anhedonia share. 

Image Credit: Album cover image by Ethel Cain.

Written by: Jordan Young

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