‘Preacher’s Daughter’ is a concept album in which Hayden Silas Anhedönia, better know as her musical persona/character Ethel Cain, explores the American dream, abuse and religious trauma. The story maps the life of a teenage girl who in fleeing the restraints of her deeply Christian family and conventional life meets an ever-more disturbing fate, falling into the grasp of an abusive lover who ultimately cannibalises her. Ethel’s abandonment of her family and religion is alluded to by her surname which is a likely reference to the biblical story of Cain and Abel in which Cain, being the unchosen one by God, murders Abel, his brother, and is then condemned to a life of wandering. Ethel is a child of Cain in that she too wanders when journeying from Alabama (east) to California (west) in an attempt to escape her past life. Her surname may also allude to Dante’s ‘Inferno’ as Caina is the first concentric ring in the ninth circle of Hell to which those who betray their families belong, and Ethel betrays her family in the sense that she runs away from them, abandoning the religion by which they have brought her up.
It is already apparent from the name and plot of the album that Anhedönia draws upon Gothic influences, more specifically that of the Southern Gothic; the narrative abides by almost all of its seminal characteristics such as violence, absurdity, decay, oppression and melodrama to name a few. The Southern Gothic aesthetic is again made evident by the album art which depicts the protagonist, Ethel, in a “dated” room, wearing what may be her “Sunday best” and with an image of Jesus mounted on the wall above her head, which of course references the thematic focus of the work being Christianity. Moreover, the sonic world in which ‘Preacher’s Daughter’ dwells also perfectly aligns with the Southern Gothic aesthetic; the harmonica in ‘Thoroughfare’ is an obvious nod to old-style country music, alluding to the story’s locational basis in the rural American South, and the organ drone in ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ creates a somewhat Gothic atmosphere. The diverse instrumentation used, with both harmonicas and organs, evidences the infinite creativity of Anhedönia as her imagination in every aspect of the work seems to know no bounds.
I will now go on to detail my favourite, and what I deem to be the most poignant, moments and songs of the album…
The album’s most celebrated track ‘American Teenager’ is a song that with its deceptively “poppy” and upbeat tune means its largely philosophical and morbid lyrics can easily go unheard. Upon a first listen it may seem that our narrator, Ethel Cain, merely sings of living a simple life as an archetypal “American Teenager”, who speaks of her ‘high school football team’ and the ‘bleachers’, both creating a conventional and romanticised image of high school; we often encounter these motifs in American media that tends to glamorise the experience of American adolescence. However, this glorified all-American imagery is undercut by lyrics such as ‘the neighbour’s brother came home in a box, but he wanted to go so maybe it was his fault’, with this lyric in particular referencing how, in pursuit of serving their country, many young men go oversees to fight in combat and subsequently die in the name of it. This line speaks to the song’s, and indeed whole album’s, warning against the potentially perilous outcomes of chasing the “American Dream” and may foreshadow Ethel’s gory demise that can be attributed to the same cause; she escapes the confines of her ordinary life in order to achieve freedom, a sentiment found in a great deal of American media.
The climax of the album is undoubtedly ‘Ptolemea’ in which Ethel tells of the sadistic and virulent abuse she receives from Isaiah, a man who offered her a lift from Texas to California, and who subsequently became her lover. The title is another reference to Dante’s ‘Inferno’ with Ptolemea being derived from Ptolemy, the fourth concentric ring of hell to which those who betray their guests belong, which correlates to the depraved betrayal of Ethel’s trust that Isaiah enacts. It is cultural references like these that establish this album as a form of “high art”; every aspect is imbued with meaning and creativity. As can be expected from its title, the song is exceedingly dark and, for me, the most harrowing; upon first listening to Ethel repeatedly beg Isaiah to ‘stop’ his abuse towards her with these pleadings escalating into shouts and then screams, I was so genuinely scared that I had to turn my bedroom light on, and my visceral reaction is absolute testament to Anhedönia’s impressive powers of storytelling.
My favourite track, being the penultimate track ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ is what got me hooked on Ethel Cain in the first place. The song is narrated to us by Ethel from beyond the grave after her violent cannibalisation by Isaiah, as she reflects upon her life and comes to terms with the trauma she has endured at the hands of the church, her family and her lover. This sentiment is summarised by the line ‘if it’s meant to be then it will be’, which is repeated over and over like a positive affirmation to both herself and listeners after what has been a frankly quite traumatising story, and showcases how Ethel has come to accept her situation and no longer attempts to escape it. My favourite lyric of the song, and whole album, is ‘God loves you, but not enough to save you’, which exemplifies Anhedönia’s lyrical mastery as she succinctly and poetically lays bare the hypocrisy inherent within conservative Christian rhetoric and ideology showcasing how Ethel can finally view her life through clear eyes now that she is dead.
Overall, Ethel Cain’s enchanting lyricism coupled with her powerful and transcendental vocals make listening to ‘Preacher’s Daughter’ an immensely emotional and spiritual experience, which I implore everyone to hear for themselves.