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You’ll find tracks that creep into the seven- or eight-minute range on Ethel Cain’s debut album, Preacher’s Daughter. Muted sermon soundbites, the thick buzz of bees or the incessant hum of flies, and her own languid vocals build out worlds of sound that are so dreamy and dark they remind casual listeners of Lana Del Rey. But even if Cain’s singing style is languorous like Lana, a deeper excavation of her lyrics — and Cain’s own backstory — will help newcomers understand the comparison stops there. Perhaps what connects the two women is an insistence that pop can sound however they want it to; if they build a sound and stick to it, listeners will fall in line. And on those terms, Lana is a logical precursor for the rise of Cain’s sprawling sound.
Growing up in the rural town of Perry, Florida as the oldest of four, Cain’s born-again Christian background included homeschooling and threats of hell when she began to vocalize her queerness. After surviving her teen years, in part thanks to internet portals like Twitter and Tumblr, Cain formally came out as transgender at the age of 20, changing her name to Hayden Silas Anhedönia and landing on the persona of Ethel Cain shortly after. “I love overkill — I’m nothing if not dramatic,” Cain told The New York Times, which recently published a freewheeling profile that collects the artist’s personal life data into a cohesive narrative for the first time. “It’s over-the-top American melodrama, it’s Thelma & Louise and the most ridiculous, psychotic, psychedelic things.”
Cain told The Times that unveiling her new artistic persona was more akin to being possessed than an act of creation, a fitting revelation from an artist who so often deals in matters of the occult. First adopting the aliases of Atlas and White Silas for making music, there’s a renewed focus and sharpness in the work of Ethel Cain that these previous iterations lacked — so maybe the spirit world is involved. Quietly building out the world of Ethel Cain across three EPs — Carpet Bed and Golden Age in 2019, and Inbred in 2021 — her first full-length album represents a huge leap forward for the artist. Building pop out of fire and brimstone, these songs confront a loss of faith and the threat of eternal damnation within the intimacy of story-songs.
“A House In Nebraska,” one of the first tracks off the album that Cain wrote for the record, nearly reaches the eight-minute mark. Its tortured love story unfolds across brooding piano chords, building toward a maximalist, shoegaze-y crescendo with layers of buzzy electric guitar and sporadic drums. The longest track on the record, “Thoroughfare,” leans more toward the Americana side of her sounds, with harmonica and acoustic guitar morphing into the kind of warped epic that warrants a wailing guitar solo. The best song on the album, “American Teenager” gets closer to Khalid’s own American Teen than any listeners of the early EPs would’ve ever guessed, pinning a cheerleader, a dead teen soldier, and an unmoved Jesus into the kind of ethereal pop melody that made 1989 such a beloved record.
Cain told Alternative Press that Preacher’s Daughter is the first album in a “planned trilogy about three generations of a family,” dubbing that trilogy “the Ethel Cain Cinematic Universe.” She’s certainly right that her songs unspool like movies, filled with high-drama, moving dialogue, and the kind of characters you’ll think about long after each song’s inevitable climactic moment dies down. A great example of this is one of the album’s earliest singles, “Gibson Girl,” one of the most sensual and violent songs in Cain’s repertoire. Told from the perspective of a prostitute, “Gibson Girl” is more stripper anthem than Biblical kiss-off, living in that liminal space between empowerment and subjugation. You get the sense there’s no way Cain would rather have it.
And as accessible as some of the record is, it’s still not for the faint of heart — nor is it a mainstream pop release by any means. Alienating songs like “Ptloemaea” pit Ethel’s sweetly quiet vocals against walls of sound that lean into metal and harder rock, and the three-minute instrumental of “Televangelism” paints a story with piano and vocal loops instead of lyrics. Repeating motifs of generational trauma and recurring toxic cycles on “Family Tree (Intro)” and “Family Tree,” Ethel unflinchingly explores the impact that religion, guilt, and shame have — and continue to have — on so many American families. The ominous hiss of flies builds in the backdrop of the song while Cain sings about a white horse, taking down another degree of separation between herself and Taylor Swift.
Since the characters in Ethel Cain songs glow on Harleys in parking lots (“Western Nights”) and mourn the long-gone ritual of church on Sundays while staring at dead bugs (“Sun Bleached Flies”), it’s little wonder the industry that has invoked comparisons to Lana’s absent-minded Americana fetishism. But even Del Rey’s best writing has never delivered a line as poignant as “God loves you / but not enough to save you.” That’s a lyric written by someone who has escaped the worst of what worship can be, but never lost the urge to keep singing hymns to the silence. Ethel Cain’s faith won’t save you, but maybe her music will.