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One Good Thing: Musician Ethel Cain nurses Gen-Z America’s broken heart

 A gothic album, soaring with gorgeous darkness.

A young woman standing in deserted bleachers with her arms clasped over her head.
With the rich characterization of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or the works of Flannery O’Connor, Ethel Cain offers a take on the dark heart of rural, white America.
Helen Kirbo
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even if it weren’t a brilliant album, I would admire the sheer ambition of Ethel Cain’s first full-length album, Preacher’s Daughter.

The first in a proposed trilogy of albums tracing the spiral of intergenerational trauma outward from one central tragedy, the album tells the story of Ethel Cain herself, a trans girl from Alabama, raised in the evangelical church and dealing with the emotional scars of her father’s sexual abuse. Eventually, she runs away from home and runs into the wrong guy, who ultimately murders her. It’s dark, gothic, and not for everybody. Buried within it, though, is a sound that captures something elemental about the places and themes American pop culture rarely dares touch.

Cain starts many songs with just the whispery shiver of her voice over a spare guitar or piano playing a memorable hook, but eventually, every track builds to a sonic landscape that seems to extend in all directions. The simple instrumentation gives way to a lush, full sound, but one built atop darkly droning minor chords. This music is meant for big skies full of thunderheads.

The fact that the Ethel Cain within the album dies and the Ethel Cain who wrote and recorded the album is alive should clue you in to the fact that the story within the album is a heavily fictionalized depiction of the world in which Cain was raised. It has the rich characterization of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or the works of Flannery O’Connor, and it offers a take on the dark heart of rural, white America that I haven’t seen so forthrightly attempted in popular art in ages.

The story goes beyond even the album, however. Cain is the alter ego of the 24-year-old singer-songwriter Hayden Anhedönia, who is a trans woman who was raised in the southern Evangelical church but who did not lead nearly as grandly tragic a life as her fictional self. She does, according to this Flood Magazine profile, spend a lot of time just driving around America in her truck on a whim, which may explain why she’s such an acute observer of human nature. (I’m going to refer to her as Cain for the rest of this article because that’s who is credited with writing and producing Preacher’s Daughter.)

The first thing you’ll notice when listening to Preacher’s Daughter is its sprawl. Its 13 tracks run 75 minutes in total, and only a handful are under five minutes long, with the album’s centerpiece track, “Thoroughfare,” running nearly 10 minutes.

That sprawl is also evident in the album’s sound. Cain’s alto is reminiscent of a Lana Del Rey who is slowly ascending into the sky during the rapture, but the overall production boasts an impressive sweep. Cain’s songs — she recorded three EPs prior to Preacher’s Daughter — have always been built atop soaring pop hooks, but Preacher’s Daughter seems most interested in what it would sound like to soar, even when it’s depicting horrifying despair.

Cain’s talent for storytelling is perhaps the chief reason to recommend Preacher’s Daughter. Yes, the overarching story of the album is beautiful and filled with sad grandeur. But the album’s world is built by the smallest lyrical details, which consist of precisely chosen turns of phrase that convey a much bigger picture than might initially be suggested.

In “American Teenager” (one of the album’s leadoff singles), Cain sings that she “grew up under yellow light in the street.” In “Sun Bleached Flies,” she describes the people she grew up with as “sun bleached flies sitting in the windowsill, waiting for the day they escape.” In “Hard Times,” the song that most directly confronts Cain’s father’s sexual abuse, she implores him, “Tell me a story about how it ends, where you’re still the good guy. I’ll make pretend.”

Preacher’s Daughter is one of the few recent works of art “about trauma” that actually captures the ways in which it affects a person’s thought processes. The album inexorably descends to Cain confronting her father’s abuse, but realizing what happened to her isn’t enough to escape the cycle. She runs away and just gets caught in another abusive situation. Trauma isn’t a discrete event stuck in one’s past; it’s an echo, one that fades but only slowly. When you’re stuck in that echo, escaping it seems impossible.

Preacher’s Daughter maybe works even better as a chronicle of the end of the American dream from someone who never bought into its promise to begin with. There’s still far too little art made by American Gen-Zers to determine generational touchstones for the generation’s artists, but Cain’s deep, sneering skepticism about the promise America makes to its people suggests that it is one possible theme we’ll be hearing more of in the years to come. Even more achingly, Cain knows America has failed her, but she still seems to long for it to be the place she was told it was. She has stopped believing in America, but she’s most upset that America never believed in her.

I described Cain above as Hayden Anhedönia’s alter ego, and that’s probably the best way to describe her. It also feels slightly too simple to me. To be trans is often to realize the ways in which identity is more slippery and complicated than we want it to be. There is no simple answer to “who are you,” because everyone is a multiplicity of selves, jostling for attention. Preacher’s Daughter threads that idea through the dissociative power of trauma and the broken promise of America. Life is beautiful, and life is an endless tragedy. It can be both.

Preacher’s Daughter is available on all major music streaming platforms. It is not yet available on vinyl or CD. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.