Warning: This article speaks on themes of abuse, cannibalism, murder, grooming and violence.
Coated in Southern gothic aesthetics and spiritual motifs, singer-songwriter Hayden Silas Anhedönia, better known as the notorious Ethel Cain, journeys through the daunting life of the troubled teenager in her debut album Preacher’s Daughter. It dissects both the glory and gore of strangers, religious tolls and generational traumas that Ethel faces. She continuously searches long and hard for slight glimmers of the American dream, but this inevitably leads to her abandonment and gruesome death.
The framework for the overarching story builds with “Family Tree (Intro),” and Cain’s voice echoes as if in an empty church cathedral. Opening with themes of family trauma, she proclaims that “Jesus can always reject his father/But he cannot escape his mother’s blood,” implying that even Jesus always carries his mother’s genes. Ethel expresses how she will forever be tied to her family’s bloodline and ancestral tree through the imagery of a noose, unwillingly hanging from their inherited traumas.
Cain’s story begins in the pop-centric coming-of-age anthem “American Teenager,” setting the scene in a small Alabama town called Shady Grove, where the late Preacher Joseph Cain’s legacy is in the hands of his daughter. Ethel faces the glamorization of high school football games while holding Sunday church outings each weekend. She feels out of place in her hometown and wishes to become something that she has no real chance at. She has been losing her faith in God and drowns her sorrows in alcohol to cope with the loss of many people in her life.
Ethel reminisces on ex-lover Willoughby Tucker in the yearnful and dramatic “A House in Nebraska.” The couple would often fantasize about living in an abandoned house located in the middle of Nebraska, peacefully living together far away from their hometown. Ethel pleads for him to come back to the empty “home,” but she knows that there is no real reason why it would happen. She laments in her loneliness.
“Western Nights” snaps out of her past fantasies with her ex-lover and resumes to the present day of the album. Ethel has met a new love interest, Logan Phelps — a man who owns a motorcycle, commences bar fights and commits bank robberies. Ethel is aware that he is a danger to both society and herself, but she also sees him as a way of escape:
Hold me across every state line
I’m never gonna leave you baby
Even if you lose what’s left of your mind
She has become greatly disconnected from herself, fully ignoring his faults and viewing happiness as a simple rush of adrenaline. Logan’s heist trails into the following song, “Family Tree,” where the police gun him down, and Ethel runs away from the scene. Her ties to her hometown have officially been cut off, having no way of returning back to Alabama. The noose symbol in “Family Tree (Intro)” now transforms into a weapon of her control, advising herself to “take the noose off, wrap it tight around my hand.” Ethel must manage a way to live on her own and seeks to wash away her sins: “So take me down to the river and bathe me clean.”
Scoured with gospel hums, the gut-wrenching “Hard Times” acts as a closure to the first part of Preacher’s Daughter. Ethel reflects on her childhood and her father tormenting her, both mentally and physically. Stripped of her childhood at a young age, Ethel was forced to grow up quickly — “Nine going on eighteen” — and still holds a tainted and confusing perspective of her father.
The lonesome harmonica in “Thoroughfare” finds Ethel walking alongside an empty road in Texas, where she hops into the pickup truck of a stranger, Isaiah, in hopes to venture out of her rock-bottom mental state. Isaiah tells her about his long journey to California. Throughout the song, the two become infatuated with each other and stay in motel rooms until they reach the coast:
‘Cause in your pickup truck with all of your dumb luck
Is the only place I think I’d ever wanna be
The euphoric cries that close out “Thoroughfare” subside with the start of the promiscuous “Gibson Girl.” The steady incline of volume throughout the track parallels the betrayal of her past religious beliefs, all while being a victim of Isaiah’s gaslighting, exploitation and drugs. Rebellion catalyzes every action she takes. This untamed rush that overcame Ethel cuts sharply at the end, succumbing to the darkness soon to come.
The album takes an even darker turn when the demonic voice speaks in “Ptolemaea.” The title interpolates a level of Dante’s Inferno, Ptolemy, which houses those who were traitors; Ethel feels like a betrayer to her family line. She experiences horrifying hallucinations that distort the appearance of Isaiah. The metaphorical devil possesses Isaiah to kill and cannibalize her, and Ethel begs him to stop during her final bloody screams for help.
The first instrumental track, “August Underground,” lengthens Ethel’s suffering, encompassing her final moments of life and her inability to speak. The aching track implies that the deed has been done, and there is no return to life for Ethel. Instrumentals continue with “Televangelism,” which embodies a transcendental form of her lightweight soul, ascending from her body and to the afterlife. The use of piano keys allows the track to feel less gory than the previous one, building a sense of tranquility and nirvana.
Beyond the plane of existence, Ethel’s voice returns in “Sun Bleached Flies,” a track depicting her rotting corpse and her reflection on life:
God loves you, but not enough to save you
So, baby girl, good luck taking care of yourself
Though she found prayer as a remedy for her actions, God never came to stop her from what she was choosing to do, and now she regrets all the damage she has done. She concludes by yearning for the house in Nebraska — a time when she felt at peace — and ultimately regrets all her wrongdoings.
In the afterlife, Ethel describes the flesh of her cannibalized body while speaking about the everlasting impact her death will have on her mother during “Strangers.” Since her body was not respectfully laid to rest, she pours out the line, “If I’m turning in your stomach and I’m making you feel sick,” indicative of her playing with the phrase “turning in your grave” and finding humor in her own death. Ethel expresses her pitiful thoughts for her mother when she finds her daughter’s picture on a milk carton, leaving the album with words of darkened hope:
Don’t worry ’bout me and these green eyes
Mama, just know that I love you (I do)
And I’ll see you when you get here