Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review: Preacher's Daughter • Ethel Cain



On the night of the Met Gala, Ethel Cain tweeted that she was digging through the floorboards of her truck for loose change to buy a McDouble. A few hours later, she tweeted Sky Ferreira fan mail. By midnight, she tweeted a distorted photograph of herself in a sweatshirt printed with a naked man promoting an experimental band in semen. That night, I learned a lot about the pale white woman with the otherwise curated allure of a pilgrim whose manic stan behaviors had infiltrated my Twitter and Tik Tok feeds over the past few years – including the discovery of an affecting music career rooted in a backwards relationship with Southern charm.

Cain is the creation of Hayden Silas Anhedönia, a misunderstood child of the deep South who still proudly resides at a nowhere, Alabama, address – despite having gathered enough material from her all-American upbringing to smear it into a pseudo-autobiographical musical project that explores deep religious trauma and abusive relationships. Preacher’s Daughter, her debut record, is the twisted retrospective of her persona’s short life: Though it opens with an instantly serviceable synthpop cut aptly titled “American Teenager,” the 76-minute album proves to be an unpredictable exploration of musical touchpoints and rural American culture.

In fact, more often than not, Cain’s work is anything but instant: Many songs here are weighted with intense subtext yet carry well over the five-minute mark, churning like a wave pool to build from a gentle ripple to a fatal riptide. “Thoroughfare” crescendos over most of its nine-minute run as emotions deepen for a trucker who picked up on a highway – “Honey, love’s never meant much to me, but I’ll come with you if you’re sure it’s what you need,” she tells her new affair as the track busts into a panoramic sound that embodies the open road. It’s clear in “Thoroughfare,” “Family Tree,” and so many other songs here that withholding the payoff of a song – thus forcing devastating lyrics and evolving vocal arrangements to marinate with a listener – is an incredibly effective strategy.

It’s hard to imagine how another Ethel Cain project could exist after this one: The story is pretty well splattered across this record already, in enough detail to merit a content warning on songs like “Hard Times,” a graphic reflection on repeated assault and its aftermath, and to a greater extent, “Ptolemaea” and “Gibson Girl,” demented hallucinations that batter listeners with screams and grinding guitars. Scripted to elicit discomfort in ways that none of its closest musical references tried to accomplish, the album offers not a single moment of relief until the dreamy “Sun Bleached Flies,” when a sax squiggles over a postmortem moral to the tragedy of Ethel Cain: “If it’s meant to be, then it will be. I forgive it all as it comes back to me.” Maybe there’s a silver lining after all – we’ll just have to wait for the next record to learn about it.

Preacher's Daughter is available now under Daughters of Cain.

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Maira Gall