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The Grizzly Gazette

“Preacher’s Daughter” By Ethel Cain is Hauntingly Beautiful

Preachers Daughter by Ethel Cain is hauntingly beautiful,  utilizing amazing storytelling to tell the tale of a girl who struggles to accept her identity. (Photo by Daughters of Cain)
“Preacher’s Daughter” by Ethel Cain is hauntingly beautiful, utilizing amazing storytelling to tell the tale of a girl who struggles to accept her identity. (Photo by Daughters of Cain)

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and addiction

The tale of “Preacher’s Daughter” begins in the early 1990s, when a young girl named Ethel Cain grapples with the fact that she’s not your stereotypical American teen. Born and raised within the restrictive bounds of the Christian Church, this album takes place ten years after the death of her father, who was the well-loved town preacher. 

Ethel Cain is an enigma and the stage name for Hayden Anhedönia, who began writing “Preacher’s Daughter” in 2018 when she “found herself possessed by a woman named Ethel Cain”. This cinematic album was recorded and written almost entirely by Anhedönia alone, and it tells the story of what could have happened to her if she hadn’t left the church when she did.

 Just for clarification’s sake, this album is purely fictional, and none of these events actually took place.

The opening track, “Family Tree (Intro)”, conveys how her father’s profession has influenced her entire life. His legacy follows her every move, and she relates her history to that of Christ himself; “Jesus can always reject his father/But he cannot escape his mother’s blood/He’ll scream and try to wash it off of his fingers/But he’ll never escape what he’s made up of”. 

Anhedönia said that she wrote the next track, “American Teenager” “as an expression of [her] frustration with all the things the ‘American Teenager’ is supposed to be but never had any real chance of becoming”, and it certainly delivers. Despite its upbeat pop production, this song nails the feeling of teenage lament with some hard-hitting lyrics to back it up.

Growing up within the tight-knit clutches of a hyper-religious Southern town, Ethel has been taught to “[Put] too much faith in the make-believe/And another high school football team”. Our culture pushes us to trust in the ever-so-elusive “American Dream”, and this song is the epitome of that concept.

After her father’s passing, Ethel is forced to carry on his legacy, as she details that every “Sunday Morning” she had “hands over [her] knees in a room full of faces, preaching to their church despite the fact that she had “head full of whiskey.”

The most devastating line from this song is posed as a question to Christ himself, with Ethel asking, “Jesus, if you’re there/Why do I feel alone in this room with you?” She longs to believe in this faith that her community has built itself upon, but no matter how hard she tries, she cannot will herself to believe in their God and instead copes by pushing the people she loves away.

The following track, “A House in Nebraska” illustrates Ethel’s relationship with her former lover, Willoughby. 

He was the first boy she ever put her trust in, and they always dreamed of running away to a little house in the middle of nowhere, where all they ever needed was each other. However, he left her before the events of this album took place, which represents how another piece of her has been corrupted by a man she once believed in.

After losing Willoughby, Ethel forms an attachment to a cliche bad boy stereotype named Logan. In his songs, “Western Nights” and “Family Tree”, we learn that he’s physically abusive toward Ethel and uses her for her body. However, Ethel stayed with him because she felt like he was the only person she had left, and this dynamic is what she’d grown up believing was love.

Her misconstrued definition of love was shaped by the emotional and sexual abuse inflicted on her by her father before he died, which is explained in track six, “Hard Times.” 

Anhedönia’s depiction of his behavior is genuinely bone-chilling, and her lyricism invokes deep sympathy from the listener. His abuse forced her to grow up too fast, and she describes herself as “nine going on eighteen”. Like many survivors of childhood sexual assault, she was “was too young/to notice/that some types of love could be bad”.

The next song, “Thoroughfare”, marks the beginning of Act II of the album. At the end of “Family Tree”, Ethel’s boyfriend was killed during a shootout with the police after he robbed a bank, so now Ethel is on the run. 

As she hitch-hikes away from the only town she’s ever known, she meets a young man named Isaiah. He brings her along on his journey to California, and throughout this track, romantic tension builds between the two and they eventually “fall in love”.

Their relationship slowly turns into a twisted, toxic mess, as once they reach California, Isaiah introduces Ethel to drugs, and she becomes addicted. Once she’s in this vulnerable position, he begins to sell her for her body in a strip club, which is revealed in the track “Gibson Girl”. Although Ethel may have once believed he was a good man, she’s now beginning to lose all sense of reality. 

This leads to the most disturbing song I’ve ever heard; “Ptolomea”. This track is named after a section, in the ninth circle of hell, which is reserved for traitors. Under the influence of drugs, Ethel has begun hallucinating and attempts to escape Isaiah’s wrath. A demonic voice, which can be interpreted as either Isaiah or Satan himself, speaks directly to Ethel. Initially, he paints Ethel as a traitor for trying to escape and manipulates her into continuing to trust him. 

However, she only realizes his ulterior motive when it’s far too late. Once again, she is betrayed by a man she loves wholeheartedly as Isaiah takes Ethel captive in his basement and murders her. This song depicts her begging for her life, and her final scream is genuinely something I could never listen to again. 

The final lyrics of the song can only be explained as a message from death itself, as another bone-chilling, disturbing voice describes how the “Daughters of Cain” are “bound to suffering eternal through the sins of their fathers.”

Death has Ethel in its grip, and the following instrumental tracks, “August Underground” and “Televangelism”, depict Ethel’s death and transition into the afterlife.

The soul of Ethel reflects on her life in “Sun Bleached Flies”. This track holds the most impactful line of the entire album, “God loves you, but not enough to save you.” Despite how much she resented Christianity near the end of her life, she still clings to the concepts of familiarity and community which were long gone by the time of her death. She eventually comes to terms with her death, but she’s “still praying for that house in Nebraska/By the highway, out on the edge of town/Dancing with the windows open.” 

God loves you, but not enough to save you.”

— Ethel Cain

By revisiting the themes of “A House in Nebraska” in the penultimate track of the album, Anhedönia perfectly conveys how regardless of the fact that Ethel has accepted her demise, she still longs for the unconditional love she once received from Willoughby. 

The final track, “Strangers”, brings us back into reality, as Ethel’s body rots in Isaiah’s basement, and she watches as he cannibalizes her corpse. Although he literally ended her life, Ethel continues to romanticize her relationship with him, as she says, “You’re so handsome when I’m all over your mouth.”

Ethel was forever controlled by the expectations of the men in her life, and could not escape their grasp no matter how hard she tried, even in death. She never stopped trying to conform to their desires but still met an unfair demise.

This song further enforces the themes of conflicting morals through the line, “Found you just to tell you that I made it real far/And that I never blamed you for loving me the way that you did”, which implies that Ethel is speaking to her father in the afterlife. It feels unlikely that he would be in heaven or that Ethel would be in hell, so the line perpetuates the notion that everyone ends up in the same place, regardless of their actions during life.

The album closes off with the lines “Mama, just know that I love you (I do)/And I’ll see you when you get here”. With this final goodbye to her mother, Ethel takes the last step towards acceptance, and “Preacher’s Daughter” comes to a hauntingly beautiful close.

This album was a life-changing experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it for casual listening. Alongside the heavy themes that are explored, a lot of the songs are six-minute-long ballads, and it takes a lot of time to fully process and understand the lyrics. Regardless, this album is a masterclass in lyrical storytelling, and the story of Ethel Cain will forever strike a chord in my heart.

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