“HERE LIES ETHEL CAIN” a website banner shouts on the Google search results. Another article further down states: “Since this interview was conducted, we have been informed that Ethel Cain has been reported missing.” By these broad yet telling headlines, anyone would first think Ethel Cain was a real woman who went missing and was later found dead.
However, Ethel Cain is not a real woman, but rather the Western gothic alter ego of singer songwriter, Hayden Anhedönia. Anhedönia released her debut album, “Preacher’s Daughter,” in May 2022. Within the 13-track compilation, a story of a young girl is revealed — the story of Ethel Cain.
The most prominent theme, blistering out by the album’s title, is the significance of Christianity and the oppression the religion can hold upon an individual. For Cain, religion was dark, euphoric, comforting and haunting.
Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, and on a surface level viewed as a good and simple faith to follow with clearly outlined commandments — even with its known flaws. However, as one dips under the holy water, they can see the vast size of the iceberg and just how confusing it can get.
Certain sects of Christianity can be simple and believe the Bible changes as the world advances. Many others take the Sacred Scripture purely verbatim. It is with these sects of the religion we see oppression, primarily of women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, the Church is known to sweep sexual assault accusations, and even convictions, right under the rug of their altars.
The sound of “Preacher’s Daughter” is sliding on a spectrum between dreamy instrumentals in “Televangelism,” to sultry guitar solos in “A House in Nebraska,” to literal screaming in “Ptolemaea,” emphasizing Cain’s struggle with morality, mortality and faith.
The album’s opening track, “Family Tree (Intro),” begins with the distorted mumbling of a preacher speaking about the importance of a mother’s love. The monologue fades as Cain’s voice softly sings, “These crosses all over my body / Remind me of who I used to be / And Christ forgive these bones I’m hiding / From no one successfully.” This lyric kicks the album off with cries of repentance as Cain leaves the religious environment she was brought up in throughout the album’s storyline.
In the second verse, Cain states, “Jesus can always reject his father / But He cannot escape his mother’s blood.” Jesus, though believed to be fully human and fully divine, can never escape the fact that His mother is mortal and thus morality was passed down unto Him.
This verse signifies the intergenerational trauma Cain has dealt with. Additionally, as Cain believes Jesus can reject His father, Cain cannot. Her father is permanently tied to her, not only through blood, but as a dark presence. The album’s sixth track, “Hard Times,” details Cain’s sexual assault at the hands of her father.
Further along in the song, Cain belts, “The fate’s already f—ked me sideways / Swinging by my neck from the family tree” — a callback to the original sin Christians believe one is born with as punishment from Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.
In Track 5, the full story of “Family Tree” is unveiled, as Cain goes on the run after her lover died in a police shootout. The song’s opening lines repeat the same from its former intro. The chorus proclaims, “So take me down to the river and bathe me clean,” referring to baptism and repentance.
In the latter half of the verse, Cain sings, “Put me on the back of your white horse to ride / All the way to the chapel.” This line includes references frequently tied to marriage with “white horse” and “chapel.” Combining the First Sacrament of Baptism, a ceremony often meant for infants, with the more mature sacrament of matrimony symbolizes how she was forced to quickly grow up in response to her harsh childhood and numerous toxic relationships.
Further along, Cain states, “Heaven hath no fury like a woman scorned / And baby, hell don’t scare me, I’ve been times before.” Cain is essentially stating that nothing can hurt her. She has already experienced hell from the moment she was born and believes she has nothing left to lose.
References to hell and cardinal sins are frequent in Cain’s discography, with references to incest, substance abuse and, most prevalent in this album, cannibalism. Additionally, Track 9, “Ptolemaea,” is named after the ninth circle of hell described in Dante’s “Inferno.”
“Sun Bleached Flies,” a song in the latter half of the album, is Cain speaking from heaven after she has been killed. She reflects on the life she lived, what Christianity has taught her and whether her devotion to the faith was worth the pain. This song contains the most references to Christianity and is the most compelling example of her struggle with faith.
In the first verse, Cain refers to Christian mothers as “sun bleached flies.” They remain stuck in a mundane cycle of church and childcare, oblivious to the oppression they face and left believing this is all their life is worth.
The verse’s later lines, “What I wouldn’t give to be in church this Sunday / Listening to the choir, so heartfelt, all singing / God loves you, but not enough to save you,” emphasizes the comfort Cain had found in the church, even if some of the testaments she was told were disturbing. Evil in the world still persists and eventually overtakes Cain in the end, yet she is still told “God loves you.”
In the song’s bridge, an angelic Cain proclaims, “If it’s meant to be then it will be / So I met him there and told him I believe.” This line communicates the new spiritual maturity Cain has found after life. Yes, God lets horrible things happen to good people, but it is God’s will. For Cain, holding on to even an ounce of divinity is a necessity.
The album concludes with the remorseful track, “Strangers,” a statement of forgiveness and love. As Cain watches her gruesome death from above, she visits her mother, assuring her that she has made it to heaven and that her death is not her mother’s fault.
Although her mother may have been neglectful throughout her childhood, Cain has come to understand that her mother was under the oppression of her father, the preacher and Cain’s abuser, and she forgives her for this fact.
How can a religion that preaches peace and love not provide any for certain marginalized communities? How can a religion that emphasizes the truth decline comment when scandal arises? These are questions that are at the forefront of today’s conversations on spirituality. If the Church wants to avoid these questions and avoid this negative criticism, they must listen to the cries for reformation from its so-called “brothers and sisters.”
“Preacher’s Daughter” communicates a masterful story of a young girl with a tragic life, grappling with faith. Anhedönia’s lyrics mixed with the Western gothic composition create a full listening experience with blunt social and religious commentary, frequently left out of today’s music.