An American epic
Jessie Atkinson
18:01 11th May 2022

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There have been many artists who have successfully written the sound of the United States of America — and a great many more who have tried. From the Bruce Springsteens and Billie Hollidays, Bob Dylans and Dolly Partons, there are a handful of people who have put the vastness, romanticism, violence, glamour and inequality of America to audio. Like Lana Del Rey before her, Ethel Cain has joined an esteemed list, not by zooming in on one aspect of life in the U.S.A., but in capturing the exhilarating, frightening, bittersweet whole.

On Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain gathers up everything in the panorama of her experience in the backwater towns of Southern America and reconstitutes it into a sepia audio-rama that both references those who came before her while being entirely unique. In this process she does not rush. Many of these songs tick over the five-minute mark, with centrepiece ‘Thoroughfare’ reaching nine-and-a-half. While much of this time is taken up with idea-fleshing, guitar solos and Gothic instrumentals, rarely does it feel extraneous or (as long songs so often are) pretentious. Instead, Preacher’s Daughter travels down a long dirt road into a pink horizon, sparingly overlong despite its 75-minute runtime.

Stephen King was 27 when his first book, Carrie, was published. Ethel Cain is only 24 and has already written something as striking and with as much potential for cultural impact. Like King (of whom she is a fan), there are truly terrifying moments here, such as on ‘A House In Nebraska’, on which sinister keys foretell the doom of the couple narrated within and on the genuinely unsettling ‘Ptolemaea’, which uses warped vocals and a repeated moan to chilling effect.

There are also plenty of instances of pure joy, such as on the defiantly upbeat ‘American Teenager’ which sounds like Pale Waves covering a Bruce Springsteen song and on the deceptively romantic ‘Western Nights’, which uses melancholy to communicate sincerity.

A kaleidoscope of other emotions are presented throughout Preacher’s Daughter. So many that it would be difficult to mention them all here, though single ‘Gibson Girl’ gets a mention not only for its Dire Straits-like guitar moment but also for its unabashed eroticism.

This is not an album to be listened to with only one earphone in: it was created with the express purpose of inspiring a full-body experience, the same kind of experience that Hayden Silas Anhedönia had when she assumed the role of Ethel Cain: “I swear to God, Ethel Cain, like, possessed me” she told the New York Times in an interview. The production on this album is otherworldly in its precision and in its symbiosis with the lyrical content: together, the music and lyrics create a startlingly evocative whole.

And through it all, an undiluted sense of Americanness emerges. Having lived in Florida and Alabama, and refusing to even consider moving to New York or L.A., Cain feels like the most authentic of instruments for telling such stories. “On the side of the road in my torn up clothes with a pistol in my pocket” she sings on ‘Thoroughfare’, evoking an entire scenario just as easily as if she had really stood there. Because she has, and the magic of Ethel Cain is her ability to translate that lived experience into soundscapes. Preacher's Daughter is an American epic.

Preacher's Daughter arrives 12 May.

Issue Four of the Gigwise Print magazine is on pre-order now! Order here.

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