ALBUM REVIEW: Ethel Cain, Preacher's Daughter
Listening to a long album can sometimes be a bit of a dubious proposition that is often prone to diminishing returns. As an artist, it is truly a bold move to give a listener over an hour of music to listen to. It solidifies that it commands both time and attention, a resource that can be pretty scarce in these TikTok times. Luckily for Bad Bunny, Big Thief and Kendrick Lamar, AntiArt is ready to climb the musical mountains. This week, I am delving into the sprawling, gothic Americana of a one miss Hayden Silas Anhedönia, better known as Ethel Cain. My first encounter with her music was through last year’s Inbred EP, who’s title track genuinely frightened me. The space she inhabits is often dark, seedy, yet also very trad. Like my friend neoliberalhell, she can often be seen wearing flowy white dresses and surrounding herself with gothic church imagery. The juxtaposition between bumblefuck blues and morbid themes on Inbred produced some gold, and some coal, in my opinion.
With her ambitious debut, recent Market Hotel show and New York Times article, it is clear that Cain is looking to make a big splash in 2022. I have a lot of respect for bold, independent personalities making their presence clear, especially if the art is top notch. On Preacher’s Daughter, we get almost an hour and half of slow moving, atmospheric alt-folk that is drenched in sorrow. As a lover of songs like “Bloody Kisses (Death In The Family)” by Type O Negative, this seemed to be right up my alley. For the most part, I can definitely say I jive with a great deal of the material presented, although I’d like to take a moment to repent some of its sins. My number one complaint with this record is not the length, in fact I think it actually breeds some of the most fleshed out and cinematic moments like the heartfelt “Thoroughfare”. The issue for me comes in the form of inexplicable padding. I have no issue with Ethel making a feature-length rock record, but I do have a problem with do-nothing filler like “August Underground” and “Televangelism”. On a record that is already pretty syrupy and low BPM, these moments feel thrown in for no reason whatsoever. At the tail end of some of my favorite cuts like “Thoroughfare” and “Family Tree” are these instrumental passages that could easily be cut down.
My second issue is with the vocals. There are a few bright spots for Ethel here to demonstrate what she can do with her voice, like the shocking screams on the excellent “Ptolemaea” or the Taylor Swift-esque sweetness of “American Teenager”. However, for the most part, we are getting a creeping Cain in a comfortable and dejected register that doesn’t always amount to excitement. Some tracks have questionable mixing choices as well, burying occasionally bland vocals deep under reverb from drum hits or deep piano chords. Those two aspects are what really drags this album down for me, because otherwise this is an amazing debut. The aforementioned “American Teenager” provokes a sense of freedom, a spare bright spot in a graveyard. The following track “A House In Nebraska” uses its length to start hollow and fill in the blanks with themes of love and longing. It’s a tale of two people alone against the world drifting apart, the line “I'd kill myself to hold you one more time” is pure, unadulterated melodrama and I love it. With each progressive piano strike, I can hear Ethel getting increasingly hurt, and that to me is powerful songwriting and performance.
“Family Ties” and its intro are two more highlights for me. Though repetitive in their mirrored lyrics and themes, I really appreciate the direct connection back to Inbred. On top of that, every line is a sadcore Tumblr text post waiting to be written, and I mean that as a compliment. “Daddy said shoot first and don’t look back”, “I’ve killed before and I’ll kill again”, “Jesus rejects his father, can’t escape his mother’s blood”, there is very clever lore building here that I fuck with. As far as what’s missing from the story, I would’ve liked to see the stuffy, moldy trad atmosphere clashing with the sexual themes a little more; “Gibson Girl” seems to be the only real payoff in that regard. To conclude, this album is a solid first impression for a budding independent star. She has a unique aesthetic, instantly recognizable vocals and instrumentals, and I commend the ambition right out of the gate. This could’ve easily been a B or B+ with less jamming and more focused song topics all around, but alas, that’s just not what I heard. I recommend Preacher’s Daughter if not just for how enthralling it sounds.