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In Ethel Cain's music, hell is a place on Earth

Heaven and hell are places on Earth in Ethel Cain's discography.
Helen Kirbo
Heaven and hell are places on Earth in Ethel Cain's discography.

There's this YouTube comment I think about sometimes. I came upon it years ago, underneath a video for a song I no longer recall; I consider it now as arcane wisdom passed down to me like an heirloom, which I keep in the screenshots folder on my desktop. "So heaven does exist!" comments one user on the song, whatever it was. Months later, they get a matter-of-fact reply: "Yes, on Earth. But the problem is that hell is also on Earth." I'm not usually one for pondering the hereafter, but the sentiment struck me as true. Now when I see those evangelist billboards — warning drivers that "HELL IS REAL" from the side of the Midwestern interstate, studded between casinos and sex shops and prisons — I think, "Well, of course: it's right here."

I bet Hayden Anhedönia has passed a hundred billboards like these, driving her truck barefoot around southern Alabama, where she currently lives with her sister near a U.S. Army post, or in rural Indiana, where she once made an abandoned 19th century church her home. You can picture her there, haloed in dusty sunbeams and dressed like Laura Ingalls Wilder with stick-and-pokes, writing long and crushing ballads that feel, to borrow the words of writer Flannery O'Connor: "Christ-haunted." Anhedönia makes these songs as Ethel Cain, a persona that possessed her, more or less, just after her 20th birthday, when she publicly came out as trans. The name evokes biblical murders, pinched American Gothic-type faces and the kind of ancient 5 a.m. churchgoer who seems, though not yet dead, post-alive.

Anhedönia grew up homeschooled in a small town on the Florida panhandle, a Southern Baptist community where "pop culture" meant Gregorian chants, evangelist Billy Graham and the occasional gruesome true crime show on her grandparents' TV. When she told her mother she was gay, all hell broke loose: "Everyone thought I was a freak," she recalled in a recent interview. Escaping to Tallahassee, Fla. after high school, she felt like the last girl alive at the end of the horror film. What followed was a blackout period of dysphoria, hard drugs and bleak electronic music under a few aliases; when the idea for Ethel Cain arrived, it may as well have been divine intervention. Songs like "A House in Nebraska" spewed out — a 7 1/2-minute power dirge about doomed lovers on a dirty mattress, alone in the heart of God's country. The screenplay practically writes itself: the brutal morality of a Southern gothic novel meets the seductive nihilism of Spring Breakers. (I wonder whether Anhedönia — a gorgeous name for the inability to feel pleasure — has read O'Connor's story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," in which an escaped convict known as "The Misfit" concludes, after murdering a devout Christian family: "It's no real pleasure in life.")

Heaven and hell are places on Earth in Ethel Cain's discography: three EPs worth of harrowing dream-pop that set the tone for her full-length opus, Preacher's Daughter, released earlier this month through her label Daughters of Cain, an imprint of the publishing company Prescription Songs. Since that first EP in 2019, she's blossomed from Soundcloud unknown to mid-sized cult favorite, a pop star who seems to abhor fame and rejects the advice of Dr. Luke. Anhedönia's been piecing the concept album together since she was 19 (she's now 24), culling what was initially a 2 1/2 hour project down to a modest 76 minutes — her life's work as Ethel so far. And it begins with a pump fake: "American Teenager," the most arena-ready song in Cain's arsenal, might have you picturing Preacher's Daughter as a moodboard for a certain "Don't Tread On Me" splendor: Budweiser, NASCAR, purple mountain majesties. We meet our protagonist drunk on whiskey and crying in the football bleachers, and when she sings of the neighbor's brother coming home in a box, her voice is clear and pure — a '90s strain of angel.

The story of Preacher's Daughter begins in 1991, ten years after the death of Cain's father, the town preacher; you can almost hear the Garth Brooks and Metallica wafting over from the neighbors' boombox. The men left in her life are the kind who start bar fights and rob ATMs, or the kind who pick up troubled women on the side of the highway, which she is. In moments like these (the grim Bonnie and Clyde-isms of "Western Nights," or the sublime 10-minute fireside jam that is "Thoroughfare") you might see where the Lana Del Rey comparisons creep in: the all-American tales of a distinctly feminine auteur with "an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn't even talk about it and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness," as Del Rey says in the video for her Tumblr girl classic "Ride." But I'm not sure Del Rey and Cain are in search of the same thing; there's an immateriality to Lana Del Rey's dream of living her art that Cain casts into stoic relief. The tagline of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre rings out: "Who will survive and what will be left of them?"

The open road, in all its Western promises and free-wheeling Thelma & Louise charm, ends in California on Preacher's Daughter, dumping us inside a nightmare and the album's sickening climax. On "Gibson Girl," hate-f*** R&B grinds to a strip club death march; the psychedelically terrifying "Ptolemaea" is punctuated by shrieks of mortal terror and the buzz of flies, Cain's petrified voice interspersed with that of the devil, or someone like him: "You poor thing, sweet mourning lamb / There's nothing you can do / It's already been done." The haunting pair of instrumental tracks that follow are the sound of the end of Cain's life. If there's truth to O'Connor's theory that every great story is marked by a moment where grace waits to be accepted or rejected, this is it. What difference it makes — what grace one is allowed — is another issue entirely; is it true, as the crucifix suggests, that redemption is accessed through agony? "That each new indignity defeats only the body, pampering the spirit with obscure merit," said Donald Newbury, a member of the "Texas Seven" gang of fugitives, in his final statement before his 2015 execution. "I love you all, that's it."

As for who will survive — well, it's certainly not a meritocracy, if we've learned anything from horror movies or history. On Preacher's Daughter, when one pulls herself up by the bootstrap, the other shoe is sure to drop. Each instance of self-determined euphoria is ultimately countered by fate, the stain of original sin in the shape of generational trauma: "Jesus can always reject his father, but he cannot escape his mother's blood," Cain sings, low and steady, to open the album on "Family Tree (Intro)." But that's Cain, a cautionary tale. Anhedönia's still out there, the final girl — writing stories of heaven and hell and America, writing the story of the rest of her life.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Meaghan Garvey

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