Sixpence None the Richer
Twenty years ago, the almost entirely unknown (then) and barely remembered (now) Texas-Tennessee band, Sixpence None the Richer, released its second album, a pop masterpiece, This Beautiful Mess. The cover, a picassoesque homage with eye-popping reds and yellows, captivates today as much as it did two decades ago. Imagine a southern American version of The Sundays crossed with Nebraskan, Matthew Sweet, and a little bit of the poppiest aspects of XTC, and you’ll start to get a sense of this album. The best tracks, by far, are the least poppy songs: “Within a Room Somewhere” and “Disconnect.” Each is existential and necessarily plodding. Each gorgeously develops organically with hardly a pop hook in audible range—at least relatively speaking.
Since its founding, the band has revolved around two very talented personalities, singer Leigh Nash and guitarist/celloist Matt Slocum. Other musicians have come and gone, but Nash and Slocum remain.
As with the lead singer of The Sundays, Nash possesses a delightfully mischievous voice, pixie-ish in its enticements. Slocum clearly learned his guitar skills from The Edge, but he’s more diverse than The Edge as well. There’s a kind of generic rock/alternative sounds to his guitar, but he is rather excellent at what he does.
The Fatherless and the Widow (1994)
This Beautiful Mess (1995)
Sixpence None the Richer (1997)
Divine Discontent (2002)
Dawn of Grace (2008; a Christmas album)
Lost in Transition (2012)
Looking back at the reviews and articles written about them in the 1990s, it’s impossible not to notice that almost every reviewer and journalist labels the band and their music as “Christian alternative.” This must have simply been a marketing ploy, perhaps a way to break into some genre and gain attention. While the themes in many of the songs are, indeed, Christian, they are so in philosophical and subtle ways No one would label (for better or worse) their lyrics as evangelical. There are no calls for salvation, and no repetitive yellings of this or that text. Indeed, Bono’s lyrics make Sixpence look like a bunch of confused atheists who might appreciate Jesus for his teachings on love and peace. Nash and Slocum certainly interweave scriptural themes and, at times, actual Biblical lines into their lyrics, but the listener needs to be as attentive as possible to catch them. Nash and Slocum did take their band name from a line in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Perhaps this is the source for the claim they are a “Christian alternative” band.
Only on their Christmas album are they open about their faith. But, then, again, it is a Christmas album, a work to celebrate the high holy day of Christ’s Mass.
Regardless. . . .
Had it not been for their third album, simply entitled after the name of the band, Sixpence might be easily relegated to the past by readers of progarchy. Their 1997 release, however, is so spectacular in its lyrics, its composition, and its production that Sixpence should always hold a place in the hearts of all music lovers. For eighteen years, I have listened to this album. It has been a frequent if not constant companion, and, if asked, I would certainly rank it in my top 100 albums of all time, and probably in my top 50.
If their first album revealed that they were willing to take some interesting chances in their music, and if their second album proved that even a small band could employ the most modern technology for audiophillic excellence, the third album pulled these two things together in ways completely unexpected. Imagine for a moment the creativity of XTC’s SKYLARKING, the compositional strengths of SONGS FROM THE BIG CHAIR by Tears for Fears, and the production of Pure Reason Revolution’s THE DARK THIRD. Doing so, you might just be on the margins of getting close to envisioning SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER.
Though the album lists 13 tracks, three prog-length songs and two pop wonders make up the whole of SIXPENCE. The two pop songs did well in the United States: “Kiss Me” and “There She Goes.” As far as pop goes, these are gems. But, they are NOT in the least the essence of this album. They are much more akin to really, really good b-sides thrust onto the main album for marketing purposes.
Consequently, I’m going to skip any serious analysis of the two pop songs, other than to state they are excellent for what they are. Catchy ear candy.
The rest of the album, the rest of the album. . . .
The rest of the album is a thing of glory. With a confidence unseen in their first two albums, Slocum and Nash mix classical strings, Appalachian folk melodies and instruments, late sixties psychedelic organ, 1980s English pop, and dark Cure. The opening few notes of the entire album alert the listener this is going to be something special. Drums, bass, and guitar offer a dirge for about 23 seconds, when Nash’s angelic voice—in great contrast to the music—breaks in. Had I been the producer, I would have given the dirge another minute or more before the vocals emerge. Sometimes, lingering is better than not lingering. Still, what Sixpence produce is simply incredible. While Nash sings with divine confidence, her words are full of humane uncertainty. Is she supposed to be here? Is she doing what she’s supposed to be doing? “Have we forgotten what it means to be?” With no break in the flow, track two begins with acoustic guitar as Nash longingly asks, “This is my 45th depressing tune. I’m looking for money as they clean my artistic wounds. And, when I give birth to this child. . . .” The words are so powerful and Nash sings them so earnestly that it’s impossible not to realize this is pure confession. She longs for art, but she needs to make a career. She prays and she searches, but she can find no sure answers. Where is the Burning Bush when we need one? “We are tired, and we’d’ like to know.” Nash admits there probably won’t be anything as obvious as the voice of God appearing in the face of an angel in a bush that cannot be consumed by its own fire, but “anything would be fine,” she sighs.
Track three, “The Waiting Room,” again effortlessly follows. It is a call for patience, not just personally but on a world-wide scale while also calling for a recognition that evil happens and will continue to do so. And, again, Nash admits how profoundly tired she is.
Track Four, “Kiss Me,” as mentioned above is a really good, cute pop song. However perfect as a pop song, it’s incredibly jarring in terms of the album. Thus, I skip it!
“Easy to Ignore,” track five, takes us back into the progressive world of goodness, truth, and beauty. Acoustic guitar leads us back in, easily. This is a huge relief after the sappy lyrics of “Kiss Me.” Appalachian melodies and strings center the listener. Even more than with the first three tracks, Nash presents her own vocals as another instrument. She even gives us some Gilmour-esque backing vocals.
Track six, “Puedo Escribir,” brings the bass to the forefront, accompanied by a Spanish guitar and Nash singing in Spanish. It works, powerfully, and the song breaks and then becomes a little more poppish in the seventh song, “I Can’t Catch You.” While we’ve not returned to the territory covered by Sixpence in the first two albums, we’re close. Still, it’s darn good pop.
The best part of the album comes with track eight, “The Lines of My Earth,” dominated by piano and, once again, those Appalachian strings and melodies, but this time with some classic jazz thrown in. At her vocal best, Nash brings back the angst of the first three songs on this album with a searing vengeance. “I just don’t feel it any more. . . . The well has gone dry.” There’s more discussion of money here, as Nash declares she’s going to give up songwriting. “This is the last song.” The melancholic jazz brass fits perfectly at this point, as do the somewhat Latin percussive instruments. Though we’re still almost fifteen or more years away from Big Big Train’s masterful use of brass in The Underfall Yard,, Slocum and Nash offer really interesting hints of what might be possible. And, it seems rather clear, especially with this song, that both musicians have been listening to quite a bit of Mark Hollis.
Track nine, “Sister, Mother,” continues the uncertainty, lyrically, with a confession of sin and a plea for healing. Less than three minutes long, “Sister, Mother” expertly links “The Lines of My Earth” and the single best song Sixpence ever wrote, “I Won’t Stay Long.” Oh my, words pretty much fail me here. This song is just so beautiful, my heart aches. Every aspect of this album, SIXPENCE, has led to this song. It is the culmination of the entire album and, indeed, the entire career of the band.
Organ and acoustic guitar earnestly lead us into autumnal twilight.
Leaves are falling. Something’s calling me here.
A state of depression that I’m walking in; I’ve got the impression that I won’t stay here long.
I know why I’m like this, but, still, I don’t know what to do.
The sky is darkening. I can feel it in the air.
My heart is sinking, and I know the wind is on its way.
I know why I’m like this, but, still, I don’t know what to do.
Why am I like this?
Oh, sister, show me what to do.
The listener wants to weep with Nash. She merely wants “sunshine on me. Is that way too much to ask?”
Anyone who has experienced loss knows exactly what Nash is asking, the music accompanying her is simply stunning in its power to evoke despair. If the listener isn’t in love with Nash at this point, he hasn’t been listening.
Militaristic drums pound, the bass thunders, and we’re now in track 11, “Love.” Edge-like guitar jumps into the mix, but it sounds original in this context, not derivative. “You must be the seed, to descend into the earth, searching for the union of death and then rebirth.” This is, I must declare, a lyrical moment worthy of Eliot’s Waste Land.
Drums, bass, and Edge-guitar move from minimalism into an explosion, an ecstasy of sound and, yes, love. There’s just no other way to describe it. This is love manifest as music, as pure movement of the spheres art.
“ I need love. It is patient, it is kindness. I need love.
It is rain after the dryness. I need love.
Sister Wisdom, help me see—it’s the one thing I need; the only thing I need.
The harvester is near. His blade is on your skin. To plant a new beginning.
Well, let the cut begin.
I need love.
It is patient, it is kindness. I need love.
It is rain after the dryness. I need love.
Sister Wisdom, help me see—it’s the one thing I need; the one thing I need.
Love. Love. Love [Nash is in pure ecstasy here]
After a symphony of strings and aural dreams and a smidgeon more of the Edge-like guitar, the beat becomes, once again, more minimalistic.
Track 12, “Moving On,” finishes the album perfectly. Though the first few moments of the song sound like the beginnings of U2’s “40,” the song morphs into a standard guitar, bass, and drums rock song. Nash has found the answer, and she’s broken free from her depression. But she’s unsure she’ll be able to live up to love, to maintain its standards, and to exist in the “sunlight.” Doubts of an immense scale seep back in. “I will not let them ruin me again. I will not them ruin me. Again! There is fire inside the tree, with flames of knowing kissing me.” And, she asks repeatedly, “Will I let them ruin me? Again.” The lush classical strings are back, offering more and more doubt as they play dramatically in sync with the guitar and bass. Nash continues her uncertainty. The track, and thus the main album, ends here. No definite answers. Only hope, desire, and a deeply set doubt.
Track 13 should never have been released as a part of the main album. It’s a b-side, an add-on, a cover of the LA’s “There She Goes.” Yet another perfect pop song, but one that makes no sense in the context of the album.
As you might expect, I have carefully removed tracks four and thirteen from the album I so love when I listen to it.
As is terribly so often the case, Sixpence never found its real voice again. Their third album was their best, their COLOUR OF SPRING. But, unlike with Hollis, Lee, and Harris, no SPIRIT OF EDEN was forthcoming. Various articles on the web try to figure out what happened with Sixpence. There’s a mystery there, to be sure, and a lesson of what not to do in the music world. Their follow up, DIVINE DISCONTENT (2002), has nearly perfect production values, but we’re back to the sugary cute but, ultimately, ephemeral pop of the early 1990s. “You’re in my heart. I can feel your beat. And you move my mind.” Holy Moses, really? My six-year old could’ve written these lyrics. It’s as though Slocum and Nash devolved as artists and humans. A tragedy, really. Perhaps, the anxiety of the previous album really did prove prophetic and self-fulfilling.
The only truly great song on the album is the nearly-four minute long, “Paralyzed,” a track dealing with the superficiality of living in the first world while horrors, massacres, and bloodshed pervade much of the earth outside of our North American safehaven. The haunting line: “My dearest friend was sent to cover Kosovo. . . he bought a bullet and now he’s gone. He’s gone. . . . I went to tell the wife the news. She fell in shock. The baby kicked and shed a tear inside her womb.” Chilling.
But, the rest of the album is fairly standard and superficial. It’s not bad, and there’s not a dud song musically.. For pop, it’s . . . well. . . pop. Nice, inoffensive, and sometimes interesting, but, as an album, never demanding much.
Since 2002, Sixpence has released a solid but not extraordinary Christmas album and a new album, Lost in Transition (2012). I’ve not listened to the complete version of this last release, only the samples at amazon.com. I really can’t judge it, but it’s sounded poppy enough to my ears not to invest $8.99 for it.
I can’t leave this piece on such a melancholic note. If you get the chance and if you can find a copy, you should—without question—purchase the third release, SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER, as quickly as you can. No worries if you skip tracks 4 and 13, but please don’t miss 1-3, and 5-12. Of this, I am certain.