Ethel Cain Reckons With Love, Violence, and Religion in Debut Album ‘Preacher’s Daughter’

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Photo: Helen Kirbo

Indie darling Ethel Cain has finally released her long-awaited debut album Preacher’s Daughter. The evocative album sees Cain leave all of herself in the album’s powerful choruses, focusing on her relationship with her mother, herself, and what it means to leave your home behind for good. On her journey, Cain grapples with love, violence, religion, and the way the three intersect.

The record opens with “Family Tree (Intro),” a vintage recording of a Southern preacher, whose identity is a topic of conjecture among fans, evangelizing the significance of the mother as an icon. The monologue sets the stage for the 13-track epic, set in 1991 and detailing the protagonist’s troubled relationship with religion, her former lover, her father (the titular preacher, a beloved community member even a decade after his death), and her eventual kidnapping and murder. The record then transitions to “American Teenager,” Cain’s third and final single for this album cycle. The track is a solidarity anthem reminiscent of classic arena rock with spiraling guitar cries and blood-pumping drums straight out of the ‘80s. 

“A House In Nebraska” is a slow, resonant ballad with cinematic, overwhelming imagery. Cain thinks of her ex-lover, Willoughby Tucker, who left town before the events of the record. She reflects on the good times they shared and longs for him to come home. She visits the abandoned house they would spend time in and imagine as their own, somewhere far away from their hometown of Shady Grove, Alabama. The crashing piano chords, echoing toms, and choir of guitars penetrate the atmosphere as Cain relays the story of herself and a mysterious partner’s short lives and the horrors they endure. The pain seeps through Cain’s vocal tone and is just as compelling as the narrative’s bombastic instrumentation. The final minute of the nearly eight-minute ballad is where the guitar solo starts, swaying powerfully with sharpness and rhythmic capacity reminiscent of timeworn rock stars.

“Western Nights” offers sonic commentary on the tumultuous relationship with the anonymous partner, with the singer committing to stand by them through anything, no matter the desperation and fear she feels and how little she has left to give to a counterpart so unstable. “Family Tree” embodies a slow-burning intensity as Cain reveals the deadly agency her persona wields, sowing strife within a complicated family network marked by violence on all fronts. “Hard Times” expands on that familial strife, with Cain admitting to fearing how desperately she wants to emulate the fatherly powers in her life who brought her harm. “Thoroughfare” is a refreshing country-inspired epic. The track switches it up by replacing the intensity of electric guitars with sweeping vocals, reverberating drums, acoustic guitars, and harmonica later in the song, creating a sonic collage that only becomes more intoxicating to listen to when the tambourine and scat-led jam session closes the nine-minute song out.

“Gibson Girl,” which is a reference to Charles Dana Gibson and the women he famously drew, examines sexuality and how patriarchal systems can lead to self-worth issues. She sings, “You wanna fuck me right now / You wanna see me on my knees / You wanna rip these clothes off / And hurt me.” The song balances an sultry and haunting atmosphere, sharing how Cain has now arrived in California with Isaiah, a character she met and became attracted to in the previous track. He begins to pimp her out in the back of strip clubs and feed her drugs regularly, resulting in her losing sense of reality. 

On “Ptolemaea,” the record’s heaviest track, Cain begins to hallucinate and confronts the darkness she feels surrounding her. After the thrashing and gut-punching climax, the record breaks into two distinct, back-to-back instrumental compositions. “August Underground” is a doom-ambient track featuring humming, low-register guitars, and alluring vocalizations. “Televangelism” features pearlescent piano melodies, echoing as if they’re being played in a chasmal church and soundtracking Cain’s ascension into Heaven. Unfortunately, the experience is interrupted as the sound of a tape hissing grows and overtakes the song, casting a shade of artificiality on the otherwise celestial composition.

The album’s second-to-last track, “Sun Bleaches Flies,” is another power ballad where Cain laments her detachment from faith and community. She contemplates how she will fight the demons that have stained her existence and how she will rescue herself from the pain of the past and present. Cain ultimately makes peace with her death and reflects on her life, family, and the man she never stopped loving, Willoughby. The journey finally ends on an unbearable sad note with “Strangers.” After being murdered and cannibalized by Isaiah, Cain says her final goodbye to her mother from beyond the grave. She sings, “When my mother sees me on the side / Of a milk carton in Winn-Dixie’s dairy aisle / She’ll cry and wait up for me.” Over splendid guitar riffs and moody cymbal crashes, she asks listeners, “Am I making you feel sick?”

Preacher’s Daughter is a laborious achievement, demonstrating Cain’s innovation and mastery for bringing contrasting elements of ambient, slowcore, classic rock, sexuality, violence, and religion into one epic package. The record is musically inventive and emotionally shuddering, producing a crater-deep impact that commands your attention.

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