Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain

Preacher’s Daughter: a Southern Gothic story  

by Lara Odell

Artist Ethel Cain released her album Preacher’s Daughter in May of 2022. The collection of 13 songs tells a haunting story of a small town Preacher’s daughter’s relationship with her childhood, her escape from her small town, and her eventual murder. 

The narrative album introduces the main character, Ethel, and how her family treasured Christian values. The song “Family Tree (Intro)” begins with a muffled sermon playing overtop suspenseful chords. The lyrics allude to a loss of connection to the faith she was raised in and, subsequently, her family. The artist describes this separation from her upbringing with violent language, which culminates in the last three lines, “Swinging by my neck from the family tree/He’ll laugh and say, “You know I/ raised you better than this”/ Then leave me hanging so they/ all can laugh at me.” 

Track 2, “American Teenager,” is one of this album’s most popular songs because it does not stray away from the mundane and sometimes morbid realities of a suburban American upbringing– it is also really catchy. These references manifest in memorable lines that resonate with listeners and succinctly verbalize the horrors of American promises, like prosperity, the American dream, and the military. For example, “Grew up under yellow light on/ the street…The neighbor’s brother came home in a box/ But he wanted to go so maybe it was his fault/ Another red heart taken by the American dream.” 

“A House in Nebraska” reminisces on young love in a small town between Ethel and a former lover. She pulls on Southern gothic imagery of an abandoned house that sheltered this love she treasures in memories. In Track 4, “Western Nights,” Ethel and a new, anonymous partner leave her small hometown. The song reveals that the relationship is abusive, but the narrator’s passive attitude towards the abuse is concerning. The abuse itself and Ethel’s emotions towards the abuse add to the gothic nature of the album. The narrator conveys a dying devotion to her abusive partner. Slowly, the main character’s autonomy begins to dwindle. 

In “Family Tree,” Ethel recognizes a loss of a version of herself, possibly the person she was during childhood. The lyrics allude to abuse at the hands of Ethel’s father, the preacher, and past sins of Ethel’s. She repeats throughout the song, “These cross all over my body/ remind me of who I used to be/ And Christ, forgive these bones I’ve been hiding/ Oh, and the bones I’m about to leave, yeah.” Even as she physically and otherwise distances herself from her familial roots, the effects of her abusively religious childhood follow her. “Hard Times,” track six, further enforces the cycle of abuse that Ethel experiences from her dad and then her romantic partner. The song opens with “Hide me there, under the leaves/ Nine going on eighteen, lay it on me/ Tell me a story about how it ends/ Where you’re still the good guy.” Further, Ethel relays a childhood memory where she was “dancing right there in the grass/ I was too young to notice/ That some types of love could be bad.” This song is one of my favorite tracks in the album, although I think it is one of the saddest as well. You can hear the fatigue from cyclical abuse in Ethel’s voice and in her words. And yet, the following track, “Thoroughfare,” romanticizes this anonymous partner. The contrast between these two tracks reflects the contradictory emotions that often occur in abusive relationships. 

“Gibson Girl” continues the story about Ethel and her “partner,” although at this point, her partner is more of a tormentor. She reckons with being forced into sex work by her captor. This song reveals a lot about how Ethel’s abusive upbringing molded her views sex and love. 

The song is ridden with religious guilt, apparent in lines like these; “Says he’s in love with my body that why he’s fucking it up/ And then he says to me “Baby, if it feels good, then it can’t be bad”/ Where I can be immoral in a stranger’s lap.”

“Ptolemaea,” the most unsettling track of the album, begins with an eerie monologue by a male voice over instrumental that sounds familiar to flies buzzing. The song has vocals from both Ethel Cain and a male vocalist. It is the essence of violence, portraying how abuse affected Ethel’s connections of violence and love, ultimately ending in her death. “Ptolomea” is the point in the narrative where Ethel’s captor murders her. Halfway through the track, Ethel repeats “stop,” and the song hinges when she piercingly screams out “stop,” assumingly to the male voice who is also on the track. What follows that scream is Ethel softly singing, “I am the face of love’s rage,” implying that Ethel’s death is the result of abusive romantic connection, sexual abuse, and religious guilt. The song ends with the male voice repeating a prayer-like monologue that hints towards a religious justification for Ethel’s murder. 

The story of Ethel closely mirrors that of Temple Drake. Both stories grapple with gender dynamics, sexual abuse, kidnapping, abusive romance, parental abuse, and religious guilt and take place in small Southern towns. However, Preacher’s Daughter is from the perspective of the victim, Ethel Cain. She tells her story, and although her autonomy wavers, she is ultimately in charge of the way her story is told. Preacher’s Daughter also examines the effects of religious guilt and religious upbringing in much more detail than Sanctuary.   


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One Response to Preacher’s Daughter by Ethel Cain

  1. julie says:

    Hey Lara!
    I love that you chose to analyze music! However, I find it particularly interesting that you chose to go into more than just one song. I’ve never heard of Ethel Cain, but after your detailed analysis of her album Preacher’s Daughter, and listening to it myself, I’m extremely interested in her. It’s cool that the sequencing of the songs mirrors what the artist has been through. Without a doubt, these songs you’ve chosen for this blog post have gothic elements to them. From the words, tempo, dynamics, and the heaviness they carry because they’re about such delicate topics like abuse, religion, and redemption. My favorite song from the ones you chose is by far ‘Ptolemaea.’ It’s so incredibly eerie, which when combined with her angelic voice gives off a very unsettling and emotional tone. I also think it’s interesting that most of these songs are double the normal song length. Because of their unconventional length, it adds to the gothic feel because the artist can add voiceovers and change the tempo of the music multiple times. The overall feel of ‘Ptolemaea’ is heavy in repressed feelings and “haunting” caused by loved ones. I think there’s a metaphorical death behind the ending of that song as well. As if the abusive religious upbringing she had led to a sort of death of self, which Ethel is clearly aware of. For that reason, I think this is also the saddest song out of the ones you chose to analyze. I also love that you chose to compare this album to Faulkner’s Sanctuary. I can see repeated themes in both like you mention. I’d be curious to know though if Ethel ever spent time in Nebraska, and that’s how she got the name for her song ‘A House in Nebraska.’ I’ve never been to Florida, which with a quick search I found out that’s where Ethel is from, but I find it interesting that there’s so much southern gothic imagery in her songs. Great job on the post!

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