We have heard women sing about leaving the “small town” behind countless times before. It was once the backdrop for Kelly Clarkson spreading her wings and learning to fly. Then, it was all Taylor Swift could see in her rear-view mirror. Now, it’s Ethel Cain’s turn. Unlike those before her, Cain is less inclined to wrap her song up as she hits the sunset. Instead, that is where her story starts, right when the darkness is taking over. On her debut record, Hayden Silas Anhedönia filters her twisted adoration for Middle America through the dark lens of Ethel Cain to wondrous results.
By the final notes of Preacher’s Daughter, it is almost impossible to understand the feelings you’re left with. Across its hour-and-a-quarter runtime, Cain’s story grips you like a vice, holding your throat with an unrelenting, unforgiving force. The story, made all the more vivid by Anhedönia’s lyricism and production, is heart wrenching; a woman stuck in a circle of abuse trying to outrun her past.
Anhedönia’s lyricism adopts the story-like excellence that makes her seem like the answer to the question: what if Taylor Swift grew up under the suffocating thumb of Christianity instead of on a Christmas Tree Farm? Perhaps the most Swiftian of the songs here is the standout ‘American Teenager,’ a massive-chorused anthem that relishes the freedom of youth. “I’m doing what I want and damn, I’m doing it well,” Cain roars over glistening synths, offering a singular flicker of hope.
Cain extinguishes that hope rather quickly, following up ‘American Teenager’ with ‘A House of Nebraska.’ A sombre, looping track about being haunted by a lost love and what could have been, the near seven minute track contains some of the record’s most spiral-inducing lyrics: “Say that I’m doing fine/When really I’d kill myself/To hold you one more time.”
Cain’s voice does just as much as her lyricism to carry the record’s emotions. Her voice adds to the atmosphere, grounding every track and helping her to tie the songs together despite their wild, genre-bending sounds. The album’s production is immense; a product of countless influences blending filtered through Cain’s laser-like, singular vision. Whether it’s the country soul of ‘Thoroughfare,’ or the seductive violence of ‘Gibson Girl,’ or the pitch-black industrial metal of ‘Ptolemaea,’ Cain’s sheer ability to create songs that sound this diverse is impressive; never mind her ability to make it all sound so good.
We have heard women sing about leaving the “small town” behind countless times before. Unlike those before her, Ethel Cain does it with a lot less joy. Though it may not seem like it, Preacher’s Daughter is a love letter to small-town America. It explores just about every source of horror and sorrow you can imagine, but the record and its protagonist find peace in that darkness. Preacher’s Daughter is a long album, but Cain’s story earns every single second. The sheer artistry on display makes for a record some of the greatest who have ever done it would be proud to call their own. The fact that it’s only Cain’s debut, makes one fact clear; it’s rare to witness an act of genius in real-time, but if you’ve listened to Preacher’s Daughter, you already have.
Featured Image: Daughters of Cain/Instagram (@mothercain)