Even if it wasn’t a brilliant album, I’d admire the sheer ambition of Ethel Cain’s first full-length, The Preacher’s Daughter†
The first in a proposed trilogy of albums that traces the spiral of intergenerational trauma outward from one central tragedy, the album tells the story of Ethel Cain herself, an Alabama trans girl raised in the evangelical church and coping with the emotional scars of her father’s life. sexual abuse. In the end, she runs away from home and runs into the wrong man, who eventually kills her. It’s dark, gothic and not for everyone. But buried in it is a sound that captures something elemental about the places and themes that American pop culture rarely dares to touch.
Cain begins many songs with just the whispering shiver of her voice over a spare guitar or piano playing a memorable hook, but eventually each song builds up to a sonic landscape that seems to expand in all directions. The simple instrumentation gives way to a luscious, full sound, but one built atop dark thumping minor chords. This music is meant for big skies full of thunder.
The fact that the Ethel Cain in the album dies and the Ethel Cain who wrote and recorded the album is alive should make you realize that the story in the album is a highly fictionalized representation of the world Cain grew up in. It has Truman Capote’s rich characterization In cold blood or the works of Flannery O’Connor, and it offers a view of the dark heart of rural white America that I haven’t seen so candidly in popular art in ages.
However, the story goes beyond the album. Cain is the alter ego of 24-year-old singer-songwriter Hayden Anhedönia, a trans woman who grew up in the Southern Evangelical Church, but who didn’t live nearly as grandly tragic as her fictional self. She does, according to this Flood Magazine profile, spends a lot of time just driving her truck across America on a whim, which could explain why she’s such a keen observer of human nature. (I am going to refer to her as Cain for the remainder of this article, as that is who is credited with writing and producing Daughter of the preacher.†
The first thing you notice when listening to The Preacher’s Daughter is its sprawl. The 13 tracks are 75 minutes in total, and only a handful are under five minutes in length, with the album’s main track, “Thoroughfare”, lasting nearly 10 minutes.
That sprawl is evident in the album’s sound as well. Cain’s alto is reminiscent of a Lana Del Rey slowly rising to the sky during recording, but the overall production has an impressive range. Cain’s songs — she recorded three EPs prior to The Preacher’s Daughter – are always built on top of rising doll hooks, but The Preacher’s Daughter seems most interested in what it would sound like to float, even if it portrays horrific despair.
Cain’s talent for storytelling is arguably the most important reason to recommend The Preacher’s Daughter† Yes, the album’s overarching story is beautiful and full of sad grandeur. But the album’s world is built through the smallest of lyrical details, which consist of carefully chosen turns of phrase that convey a much larger picture than would 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 to escape’. In “Hard Times,” the song that most directly confronts Cain’s father’s sexual abuse, she begs him, “Tell me a story about how it ends, where you’re still the good man. I’ll pretend.”
The Preacher’s Daughter is one of the few recent “about trauma” artworks that actually captures the ways it affects a person’s thought processes. The album inexorably descends to Cain confronting her father’s abuse, but realizing what happened to her isn’t enough to escape the cycle. She walks away and just gets caught up in another abusive situation. Trauma is not a discrete event stuck in one’s past; it’s an echo, one that slowly fades away. When you’re stuck in that echo, escape seems impossible.
The Preacher’s Daughter might work even better as a chronicle of the end of the American dream of one who never kept his promise in the beginning. There’s still far too little art made by American Gen-Zers to set generational touchstones for the artists of the generation, but Cain’s deep, mocking skepticism about America’s promise to its people suggests it’s a possible theme we can explore. will hear more of them in the years to come. Even more painful is that Cain knows America has let her down, but she still seems to long for it to be the place she was told it was. She no longer believes in America, but she is most 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 feels a bit too simple to me. Being trans often means realizing the ways identity is more slippery and complicated than we want it to be. There is no simple answer to ‘who are you’, for everyone is a multiplicity of selves clamoring for attention. The Preacher’s Daughter guides that idea through the dissociative power of trauma and America’s broken promise. Life is beautiful, and life is an endless tragedy. You can do both.
The 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 case archives.