“There’s more to Sixpence than Kisses and Covers.”
I’m pretty sure I used that rather defensive statement as a review title at some point. Can you blame me? It’s one hell of a dilemma that a fan of a band faces, when they have some really great material in their back catalogue, some of it thrillingly dark and moody, and some of it surprisingly fragile and reverent, and suddenly they put a twee love song on their newest album and it becomes a sleeper hit a few years later. And you really, really love that song, and are happy that people have finally heard of this band that felt like one of your best kept secrets up until that point… but then comes the inevitable pressure to follow it up. And the record label doesn’t quite know what to do with the rest of the songs on their record. And the band starts releasing cover songs in an attempt to stay relevant, and then things just get super weird. That’s the story of Sixpence None the Richer in a nutshell. And it’s a sadder and more tragic one than you’d likely expect from a band who showed that much potential.
I first got into Sixpence None the Richer in the summer of 1995, during the break between high school and college that, now that I think back on it, was the last time in my life when I had no real responsibilities. No summer job. No real effort to prepare myself for college, other than packing up my stuff to move into the dorms. Just a lot of long, sunny days spent riding my bike all over town, listening to cassette tapes on my walkman that I had recently purchased from the local Christian bookstore. Given that most of the other Christian rock bands I had gotten into were full of sunny dispositions and bold proclamations of faith, Sixpence was kind of a weird band for me to like back then. Especially on that album, which came out at the peak of alternative rock’s popularity and which remains their gloomiest and heaviest by far, a lot of the material was downright bleak. Sure, I had been through moments where I wasn’t terribly happy with some aspect of my life, but I couldn’t say I’d ever been through a depression. I didn’t think that was something that happened to Christians, honestly – at least not to the “real” ones who clung to their faith. (Boy, that was incredibly naive of me – but don’t worry, I’d get straightened out on that topic in a few short years.) But despite the pervasive and sometimes overwhelming sense of malaise throughout that album, there was something intriguing about its naked honesty, and I kept listening. It didn’t hurt that they had some of the most deliciously swirly guitar and bass licks I’d ever heard in my life up until that point. Still, I wouldn’t have guessed that they’d go on to become one of my favorite bands, and certainly not that they’d one day have a huge crossover hit making waves in the mainstream and landing them on the soundtrack of pretty much every teen drama known to man.
In a pattern that would become depressingly common throughout their career, Sixpence didn’t have the greatest relationship with their first label, R.E.X. Records. When the label folded in the mid-90s, that left Sixpence in a world of hurt regarding their plans for an upcoming album. They were eventually rescued by Steve Taylor‘s fledgling Squint Records, essentially becoming the flagship band for a label trying to promote the more artsy and intellectual side of Christian music, but they too ran into trouble despite Sixpence’s breakout success in the late 90s. This further delayed Sixpence’s ability to follow up the popularity of “Kiss Me”, which came almost two years after the release of the self-titled album it came from, and by the time Divine Discontent finally came out in 2002, it had been in development hell for so long that the band wasn’t really able to make much of a splash at that point. I was devastated, because while the band had gone through quite a stylistic change by that point and was now much more “pop” in general; I thought that album contained some of their most exquisite and versatile songwriting, and it felt like a world that should have been paying attention by that point was largely ignoring them. Without much fanfare, the band called it quits in 2004. Lead singer Leigh Nash went on to start a solo career, with much mellower pop music that honestly fit her angelic pixie voice pretty well, while the other founding member Matt Slocum kicked around with some lesser-known bands for a while, mostly making a living producing and arranging for other artists. It was fine. Sixpence had a short, but solid legacy of worthwhile albums. They had at least ended things on a good note, even if it was a note relatively few people seemed to hear.
But wait… there’s more! Suddenly in 2008, news of the band’s reunion hit Wikipedia says that happened in late 2007, so apparently the news took its sweet time to find its way back to me), and lo and behold, there was an EP of new material and even a full-length Christmas album released later that year, with the promise of more to come. We Sixpence fans eagerly waited… and waited… and had honestly started to give up hope by the time Lost in Transition finally appeared in 2012. The band had been pushed around by yet another label contract that seemed uncertain what to do with them, or else couldn’t secure the funds to let them finish the album in a timely manner. Honestly, I was never quite sure what went wrong with that album, but as far as I could tell, it was met with the sound of crickets chirping in terms of public response. There was no official news of another breakup, or a hiatus, or really any solid plans for the band one way or the other, after that album. They just sort of… stopped. Leigh is making country music these days (honoring her Texas roots, nothing wrong with that!), and I’m honestly not even sure what Matt is up to now. They might very rarely reunite for the odd live appearance, but it’s all for nostalgia’s sake – the band is pretty clearly done trying to do anything new at this point. And it’s sad to me that Sixpence seems destined to be remembered as a one-hit wonder that, oh by the way, did a few fun cover songs.
I’d love for Sixpence None the Richer to instead be remembered by more people for the richness and diversity of their catalogue, even if that catalogue is a bit of a mess, with a mere five studio albums spanning nearly two decades, and such an unwieldy string of EPs and one-off compilation appearances that it would have taken a far more diehard fan than myself (especially in the pre-digital days) to have actually kept up with it all. Seriously, go check the Wikipedia page on their discography – there are easily enough odds and ends there to fill two or three more albums! That’s why I’ve chosen them as my band to feature in this “Top 20 Songs” series – and it seemed numerically appropriate to do so in June, the sixth month of the year. Too many people seem to remember this band for the wrong things – and while they were also quite an excellent cover band, sometimes playing unlikely out-of-genre covers completely straight and at other times deconstructing and reinventing the songs, I really wish that first and foremost, they were known for their repertoire of original songs. Songs that could take you up to the giddy heights of a youthful whirlwind romance, or down into the dark canyons of existential despair, only to remind you there’s no depth you can reach where your Maker can’t pull you back out again. Perhaps there was controversy over the role God played in a lot of their lyrics, whether there was too much spiritual talk or not enough, depending on your own perspective on Christianity, and when you first got into the band. But they were one of the first from the Christian rock scene to go through the trial by fire of crossing over into a much bigger world that it’s hard for any niche band to be fully prepared for, and I think they walked that line graciously, while being game to try a few things that might have seemed out of character at first, yet also while being brutally honest about the professional and personal hell they’d been through. Even if it was a lot to ask of listeners who were probably just tuning in to hear catchy love songs, a lot of that stuff really hit me where I lived, and that’s how I remember the band best.
So, without further ado… here are my Top 20 original Sixpence None the Richer songs. (I’ll get to the covers later, I promise.)
1. Kiss Me
(from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
I was asked to contribute my thoughts on a favorite Sixpence song to an article published on a friend’s blog, InEverglow, last year. I think he wanted a quick blurb, but I ended up writing five whole paragraphs! That’s about the best I’m ever going to do in terms of making a case for why I love that song so much, so I’ll just re-post that write-up here. (And seriously, go read the other entries in that article; many of them make excellent cases for a number of my other favorite Sixpence songs.)
I can just hear the die hard Sixpence fans now. “Seriously, you picked ‘Kiss Me’ as your favorite Sixpence None the Richer song? Have you even listened to their discography? Why does that song have to get all the attention? This guy’s a poseur! Give us the deep cuts!!!” But hear me out. I’ve actually been listening to the band since This Beautiful Mess, which I slowly came to appreciate as intriguingly dark and unflinchingly honest, compared to all of the other Christian rock bands I was into at the time. And though I initially balked at what seemed like a slower, more downtrodden approach on the few tracks from the band’s self-titled record that I’d managed to hear on my local Christian radio station’s Saturday night rock block (“Love”, “I Can’t Catch You”, “Sister Mother”), I actually made the decision to take a chance on that album before I’d even heard “Kiss Me”. It wasn’t a mainstream hit yet. I had no clue, in the fall of 1998, that the band was about to blow up with that song the following year. I’d simply heard about “Kiss Me”, as well as a few other intriguing aspects of the album such as the opening three-song trilogy, and the Spanish poetry and off-kilter time signature of “Puedo Escribir”, by way of online reviews and features in magazines like CCM. (Remember when we read actual printed magazines? I realize I’m dating myself here.) Many tracks on that album gradually wound up as dark horse favorites of mine, but to this day, there’s no Sixpence song that I have a greater emotional attachment to than “Kiss Me”.
First off, there weren’t (and still aren’t) a lot of CCM songs about kissing. This segment of the music industry tends to balk at overt expressions of physical passion – perhaps allowing some leeway when a singer is clearly discussing it from within the context of marriage. Light-hearted pop songs about young people falling in love tended to focus more on the spiritual implications of the relationship, and to indirectly address physical desire by way of metaphors… when they weren’t blatant commercials for chastity, of course. This was the era when young Christian readers were kissing dating goodbye, and among my personal circle of friends, beliefs ran the gamut from “What’s the big deal? We all did this as teenagers” to “Don’t even think about it until your wedding day”. I didn’t personally experience my first kiss until I was 20. I hate to make it sound calculated, but I knew it was coming, since a young woman I had met in the dorms the previous year had expressed romantic interest in me, I had turned her down, then later I realized I actually did have feelings for her and was just being stupid, and thankfully, she was still interested once I got that all sorted out. So I pretty much got to control the timing of when we would transition from “confused platonic friends trying to define the relationship” to “actual boyfriend and girlfriend”. I bought Sixpence’s self-titled album that week, figuring if there was ever a time for me to take a first listen to the fabled “kissing song” on that album, and to share it with a special someone, this must be it. I even put the song on a mixtape for her, then second-guessed myself about whether it was giving too obvious of a hint, and the actual kiss happened a few minutes before it came on. Ultimately, that relationship did not last – we gave it a good two and a half years and then realized we were drifting apart. The breakup was messy when things did finally end, but I never held that against the songs that were special to us in the beginning. When I think of this song, I think of the unspoken romantic tension between two people finally becoming spoken, against the backdrop of an incredibly picturesque setting, as the two of them agree that the moment is right, and then indulge, knowing they have each other’s eager consent. That’s how it happened for me the first time, and I’m glad it’s not something I have to look back on with regret.
Now, about that picturesque backdrop. I don’t like this song just because it’s about kissing. It could simply be a song about a gorgeous summer night in which creation is all abuzz, joyously expressing gratitude to a creator who put everything there simply to be beautiful. Fireflies are dancing. The silver moon is sparkling. The barley is… bearded. (OK, I never quite understood that particular line, but still, Matt Slocum had an awesome way with words, and Leigh Nash had a way of singing those words with innocent, childlike wonder.) Little details of a couple’s outing in the wilderness bring wonderful visuals to the mind of an imaginative listener – “Bring, bring, bring your flowered hat/You’ll wear those shoes and I will wear that dress.” (I feel like some pronouns might have gotten mixed up due to the song being written by a man and sung by a woman. Regardless, if a guy can pull off an ensemble that involves a flowery hat, then I say more power to him.) Probably my favorite line in the entire song is “We’ll take the trail marked on your father’s map.” I’ve always been a huge fan of the outdoors, and in my single days when I longed to be with someone, I couldn’t think of anything more romantic than the notion of traveling and exploring the wild together, just picking a path and seeing where it would lead. Why did the father have a map? Was there buried treasure marked with an X on it somewhere for them to dig up? Perhaps it didn’t matter. Soon enough, there would be a spot on that map where the two would dance and swoon and ultimately kiss beneath the milky twilight, and this shared memory would become its own X to commemorate that spot on their mental map of all the important places in their lives.
All this, and I haven’t even discussed the actual music yet! In my mind, “Kiss Me” is pretty much the quintessential late 90s alt-pop song. It’s immediately catchy, yet not in the most conventional way. Somewhere between the swirly, guitar delay-heavy musings on depression and depravity heard on The Beautiful Mess, and the largely down-tempo, “Where is my career even going and why does God take so long to answer me?” type laments heard throughout most of the self-titled, “Kiss Me” showed up as a downright cheerful and optimistic shock to the system. Did it even fit into the narrative? Matt Slocum had his doubts, and was apparently considering leaving the song off the album, until pretty much everyone else involved in the creation of the album convinced the band that the song had potential. (And for those who worry that it might seem out of place on the album after that opening trilogy, I figure the sad heartbreak of “Easy to Ignore” was purposefully placed at track 5 to ease you back in to the melancholy.) Sure, it’s poppier than most everything they’d done up to that point, but it accomplishes this quite creatively. That opening chord progression is pure gold, and in turns out to be both easy and super fun to play on an acoustic guitar – just variations on a basic D chord (or C, depending on how you capo it), but that one note from the chord that oscillates up and down throughout the verse gives the song a melodic richness that you can’t experience with just the four basic chords of pop. Then you have the light but carefree percussion, the jangly electric guitar that is just so adorably 1990s that you can pretty much picture a highlight reel from Dawson’s Creek accompanying it… and of course, the accordion in the bridge. (Yes, accordion. I thought for years and years that it was a harmonica.) That might be my favorite part, because that’s the point where I can most easily imagine that I’m sipping a tall glass of iced tea on a rickety old porch, gazing out at the long, tall grass, the fireflies buzzing, and giving a knowing wink to those two crazy lovebirds gallivanting off into the wilderness together to finally confess their true feelings.
So yeah, I’ve been head over heels in love with this song since the first time I heard it. And no amount of incessant overplay, or lack of a strong follow-up single that wasn’t a cover, or lamentable dearth of attention given to the numerous highlights in the rest of Sixpence’s discography, is going to ruin that blissful feeling I still get each and every time I hear it.
2. Melody of You
(from Divine Discontent, 2002)
I promise I’m not going to write five paragraphs on every song. That would be insane, even for me. But this is a song about something so wonderful that you would want to write about it endlessly. Essentially, it’s a poetic love song from an artist to their creator, a celebration of the myriad ways that God’s creativity has populated the universe, and how an artist wants to express some of that back to God somehow, recognizing the creative spark that is innate within them as part of that creation. Leigh’s voice was at its most angelic and relevant here, but also its most enthusiastic. The first few times I heard her hitting those incidental notes during some of the unexpected chord changes in this beautiful song, it sounded “wrong” to me, but now those moments feels like little imprints of childish glee, deviations from the expected norm in a song that has a beauty and a grace all its own. The lush, finger-picked backbone of this song was one of the first things I learned to play, about a year or so after I first picked up the acoustic guitar, that wasn’t just plain old chords. And Slocum’s string arrangement is nothing short of a slice of heaven here. When it completely takes over in the song’s final elegance, it’s quite possibly the most awe-inspiring and worshipful moment in the entire Sixpence discography.
(from This Beautiful Mess, 1995)
There is a passage in the Bible that says to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. This song – which was one of my first impressions of Sixpence back in the day, but which would probably be quite a jolt to the system for anyone with only a superficial knowledge of the band nowadays – seems to take that idea and run with it in the most aggressive, jumpy, jittery, and unsettling way the band could manage. The “swirly” guitars in its opening drip with the sort of reverb you’d expect from a good alt-rock band making the rounds on the college radio circuit in the late 80s or early 90s – this was a glimpse into a musical world I was not yet familiar with, but would later come to appreciate through bands like R.E.M. and even some of Over the Rhine‘s early stuff. The lyrics described a sleepless night during which Leigh was at her most vulnerable, tossing and turning and trying to shake some sort of a demon loose. Whatever it was that she was praying would be wiped away by the calming sound of crickets and the intervention of “The milky prints of spirits near”, it felt so heavy that it was like it had left treadmarks on her chest. I was probably more of a believer in what we called “spiritual warfare” back then, while nowadays I’d probably chalk that sort of a waking nightmare up to an extreme anxiety attack. Either way, for a band in the mid-90s to acknowledge that yes, Christians go through this stuff too, and to put us in the quaking boots of the person having that experience by way of a loud, feedback-soaked chorus full of slamming guitar chords and lumbering bass, was an incredibly brave move. This song may be one of the most exquisitely heart-wrenching cries for help ever recorded.
4. Puedo Escribir
(from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
This song is one of my all-time greats in the “bizarre time signature” department. I’ve always been drawn to odd time signatures; you just don’t hear enough of ’em in popular music, and especially not sharing space on albums with big pop hits on waiting like “Kiss Me”. As I alluded to when discussing that song, just reading a description of “Puedo Escribir” in a review was enough to make me hungry to hear the song for myself. Not only did drummer Dale Baker lay down a deliciously lopsided beat in 11/8 time while Matt Slocum unleashed one of his richest (pun intended) and most melancholy string arrangements on top of it, but Leigh was singing in Spanish – a language which I understood just enough of at the time to get the gist of it. This song’s lyrics (including a bridge section translated into English) come from the words of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and they mostly repeat a few short stanzas about being inspired by the howling of the wind in the night sky to write “the saddest songs about her”. Whether “her” is the wind personified, or a long-lost lover, is honestly not something I ever really stopped to think about until just now. For over twenty years, I’ve been so captivated by the complex arrangement of this song, and how it ended side one of the self-titled album on such a ridiculously strong note (remember, this was back in the days when I actually had to flip a cassette over – I guess vinyl enthusiasts have that experience as well, but bafflingly, their version of the album didn’t include this song!), and yet I never once had to come up with an interpretation of the poem that made logical sense to me in order to deeply feel the emotions it was trying to communicate. I guess you could say I had a… whirlwind romance with this one? (I would like to formally apologize for that dumb joke.) I hope I’ve described this one in a way that makes you want to hear it now. YouTube certainly makes it easier than biking a good hour to the nearest Christian bookstore to buy an entire cassette in the hopes that it lives up to expectations.
(from Divine Discontent, 2002)
I’ve heard the cliche “Dance like nobody’s watching” so many times that it makes me want to puke. Yet Sixpence makes a case for it – or rather, for dancing like only your creator is watching – in this majestic slow waltz of a piano ballad that showed up pretty deep in Divine Discontent‘s second half. Just about anything that relates to the Biblical character David, that isn’t about him slaying Gloiath, I’m there for. This song uses the description of him dancing so deliriously and joyfully that he doesn’t even realize what an embarrassment he’s made of himself (and also, I think he’s naked? People did weird stuff in Bible times) as a metaphor for being so hopelessly in love that you don’t care what anyone else thinks. This one unfolds over a generous seven minutes, features a few more of those trademark Sixpence chord changes that don’t go where you think they’re supposed to and yet end up all the more delicious for the weird detour, and features an absolutely phenomenal orchestral arrangement that once again pretty much takes over the song by the time it finally winds down. This one threw the gauntlet down to every romantic dance depicted in every Disney cartoon ever and said, “This is how Sixpence does the whole ‘madly in love’ thing.” (It certainly helped that, at the time of Divine Discontent‘s release, I was personally madly in love with a woman I was dating long distance who would go on to become my wife. I wanted nothing more than to hold her again, and slow dance with her in a quiet room, when I heard this one… and that’s despite the fact that I suuuuuuuuck at dancing.)
6. Falling Leaves
(from The Fatherless and the Widow, 1994)
I don’t think I actually heard Sixpence’s debut album in its entirety until the fall of 1999, well after “Kiss Me” had become a big deal, when a college friend loaned it to me. I had just graudated from college myself at the time; I was in the middle of a job hunt, rapidly going broke, and spending way too much time commuting around the city of Los Angeles without the luxury of my own car, growing rapidly depressed by the inherent grey-ness of its freeways and its urban core, and wondering what sort of a locale I might have to settle for working in just to get the bills paid. This song stood out to me right away, as the most intense and up-tempo of the deep cuts on Fatherless – a hint at the sound they would further explore on This Beautiful Mess, perhaps – and it was one hell of a memorable way to open Side B of the album. They appealed to my inner nature lover by singing about the stunning sight of the leaves changing color and falling to the ground in autumn, and wanting to get lost in that beautiful scene, drowning out the noise and the chaos and the constant demands of whatever life was throwing at them back in civilization. There’s an almost gothic mood to it, due to how the driving pace and the tense melodic structure of the song seem to be desperately begging to “sink into the ground, never to be found”. What’s interesting is that I’ve always thought of this as a “minor key” song, even though looking at the actual chords, most of the riffing is done on major chords, just not all of them in the same key at each other, so you get these really interesting chromatic (I think that’s the right word; I didn’t pay much attention in music theory my freshman year of college) shifts from E down to D, then C, and back up again, with a lot of delay and reverb and hammer-ons and other embellishments to make the guitar work fully engrossing. I tend to be very visual with songs like this one; I can see all the golds and oranges and reds and browns in my mind’s eye as I listen, and I find myself strongly compelled to be standing in the middle of that scene (amongst the leaves, I mean – not buried beneath them) for myself. I suppose that visual element has quite literally colored my perception of what the music sounds like.
7. Within a Room Somewhere
(from This Beautiful Mess, 1995)
For me, this was where it all began with Sixpence None the Richer. Release Magazine, the very same publication that had introduced me to Jars of Clay by way of its sampler cassettes included with every issue, featured this song on one of its samplers, and I was easily drawn to the harmonic resonance of the guitars, the eerie tick-ticking of the drum beat, and the way it all melted into a dense, gnarly jam session in the final minutes of the song. Like “Angeltread”, this felt like a prayer of despair, or at least loneliness, coming from within the walls of a dark bedroom late at night. In this case there was a little more assurance that help would come – “Messiah, I know you are there/Within, without me, holding me” – but there was also an acknowledgment that there was no prescribed roadmap to recovery. This was a song that simply existed in the midst of an unidentified pain, looking for some solace and holding out hope that it would be found, but refusing to tie it up with a pat answer by the song’s end. Hell, I don’t know if this song even does have an ending in the traditional sense – it seems like the band just decided to keep on grinding away until they gradually gave out one by one, with that last little grumbling interjection from the electric guitar as it becomes the final instrument to catch the hint.
8. I Can’t Catch You
(from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
I feel pretty strongly that this should have been the follow-up single to “Kiss Me”. I can see why the record label was in a bind after Sixpence scored a surprise hit, because there was almost nothing else on the self-titled album that sounded even remotely upbeat, aside from this song. I had actually been away working at a camp for most of the summer, with no exposure to radio or any real news of what was going on in the music world, so when I came back and my girlfriend tried to explain to me that Sixpence had a new single out and it sounded kind of upbeat and cheery, this was my best guess at what the record label had put out. (I was wrong, of course – the follow-up was a newly recorded cover of The La’s “There She Goes”, which has never been a favorite of mine, and which I still harbor a great deal of resentment toward for being an impostor when the world really deserved to hear something else from this excellent album, rather than an out-of-the-blue new recording tacked on to a rushed re-release of it.) Christian rock radio had played it a little bit before the “Kiss Me” days, at least – it was sort of a holdover from the jangle-pop of Sixpence’s earlier days, just without as much of the reverb, so the guitars and drums sounded a little more “dry”, but Slocum’s riffing and Baker’s beat were still incredibly infectious. I loved how this one snaked its way through yet another unconventional chord progression, while Leigh tried to unload all of the baggage that was getting in the way between her and someone she was trying to pursue a relationship with. Learning to love yourself and not let all of the flaws and past failings that you’ve picked apart down to their most microscopic level seems to be the theme here. There’s a great deal of nervous energy to this one as she worries that the love she craves will be too elusive for her to ever capture, and I think it works incredibly well as a metaphor for being so hung up on the idea of one’s own sin and imperfection that you can’t fathom how God could actually love you or how grace is supposed to work. Because that’s another thing that we Christians struggle with a lot more than we care to admit.
(from Streams, 1999)
This likely isn’t the song you’re thinking of… but we’ll get to that one soon enough, I promise. “Breathe” never appeared on a proper Sixpence album (if you don’t count their bizarrely-curated best-of released after their initial breakup in 2004, I guess), and it was perhaps only technically a Sixpence song, having been written as a collaboration between Leigh Nash, Australian singer-songwriter Michelle Tumes (who had recently become a favorite of mine at the time), and composer John Mallory for the compilation Streams, which found a number of popular CCM singers of the late 90s singing reflective songs vaguely organized around a general theme of healing. Nash didn’t yet have a presence as a solo artist, so Sixpence’s name was tacked on to this song, probably for recognition’s sake, since I’m genuinely unsure what the rest of the band contributed here. I’m guessing Slocum could have worked with Mallory on the decadent string arrangement, which yet again is one of the most delicious in the Sixpence canon. It actually veers a lot closer to the Enya-esque mellow pop style Tumes was known for at the time than anything we would have expected of Sixpence pre-Divine Discontent. I still think it’s one of Leigh’s best vocal performances, as she sings of a cleansing, meditative moment when all her burdens fall away and she is simply breathing in divine love as though it were oxygen. It’s more than a bit mushy, and it’s almost hard to believe this came from the same artist that recorded This Beautiful Mess only four years prior. It had the effect of a healing salve on my frayed nerves when I first heard it amidst all the pre-Y2K doom and gloom in the waning days of 1999. And it has remained one of my absolute favorites ever since, despite the fact that I feel tempted to put an asterisk next to it whenever it’s listed alongside other Sixpence songs.
(from Divine Discontent, 2002)
This isn’t a comforting song at all. There actually aren’t many songs that Sixpence has recorded in the 21st century that I’d consider “rock” in the same sense as a lot of their weightier material from the 90s. But this one was a loud splash on an otherwise pop-leaning album, a holdover from the days when Sixpence was trying to balance their newfound fame for having written a silly love song with some of the darkest tragedies going on in the world at that time, such as the war stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia that was now causing mayhem in disputed areas like Kosovo that many of us Americans had never even heard of. So the searing cry of the lead guitar in this one, and the sense of heavy guilt it’s wracked with, are definitely earned. Leigh appears to be singing this one from the perspective of a reporter who was sent to do a fluff piece on them. The poor guy’s trying to make it through the interview, but all he can think about is a dear friend of his who became a casualty of the war despite being a natural observer simply trying to document what was going on so that the rest of us could stay informed. The anger is palpable as Leigh cries, “Feel like I’m fiddling while Rome is burning down/Should I lay my fiddle down and take a rifle from the ground?” The subtext here (which I think was made more explicit in a verse that was later removed from the song) is that there’s a lot of lofty talk whenever a Christian band makes it into the mainstream, about how they’re bringing light and hope to a world that needs it, but now she’s looking at the talk show circuit and the festivals they’re frequenting, and the people largely showing up just because that one innocuous little song hit it big, and thinking, “Is this the effect we’re really having on people?” It’s a challenging song on a topic where it’s hard to find easy answers, because we live in a screwed-up world where wars and genocide and the like happen on a regular basis, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out whether we can justify making room in our hearts for a silly love song, or whether that sort of thing is exactly the gateway we needed into the thoughts of an artist who would go on to challenge us to think more deeply in some of their other work.
11. Breathe Your Name
(from Divine Discontent, 2002)
Here’s the one you were probably thinking of two entries ago. Out of all the original Sixpence songs that aren’t “Kiss Me”, this is probably the one you stand the greatest chance of having heard, though maybe you didn’t realize it. (I feel like I’ve encountered this one an inordinate number of times as supermarket muzak. I realize that’s not helping my case, but I digress.) As the opening track on Divine Discontent, this one marked the turning point where it felt like Sixpence was saying, “Alright, screw it, we’re a pop band.” I can remember first hearing this track in the summer of 2001 – a full year before the album would finally be released – and thinking, “Programmed drums, huh? They’re really leaning into it.” And yet, you still get those odd-angled chords that jump out at you, defying the “four chords of pop” progression you might have expected, while Leigh reaches for some unexpectedly high notes, making the song at once a challenge and a real delight to sing along with. The song acts as a sort of mantra, with Leigh taking a moment to center herself amidst whatever craziness she’s dealing with in life, and remind herself who’s in control, rather than trying to cling tightly to the steering wheel herself. It’s the “Serenity Prayer” of pop music.
(from The Fatherless and the Widow, 1994)
It’s fascinating to me when a band’s earliest record contains the kind of song about dealing with the pressures of fame that was clearly written well before they were actually famous. The Barenaked Ladies applied their savage wit to this topic with “Box Set” on their debut album, and Sixpence’s much more sobering take on the topic appears as track two on The Fatherless and the Widow, a contribution from their original bassist, T. J. Behling. The delay pedal effect on the electric guitar had me entranced right away, as did the extra-chunky drums and bass – once again, looking back at Sixpence’s early stuff, I’m impressed at how big it sounded despite not having the sheen of that era’s typical pop production, or really much of a big budget behind it. It’s got an eerily prescient lyric, expressing the fear of being put on a pedestal and becoming the sort of celebrity who gets in the way of the actual message they’re trying to convey. Fortunately, despite the very real and uncomfortable way they got catapulted into the spotlight about five years after this song was written, Leigh and Matt generally struck me as the kind of people where were too down to earth to really let it go to their heads.
13. Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death
(from This Beautiful Mess, 1995)
Now, if you want to talk about awesome bassists, J. J. Plasencio is where that conversation really needs to start. He was with the band throughout the mid-90s, and he left after the making of the self-titled album in order to play with Plumb for a bit, so basically he’s the guy with a habit of leaving bands right before they get big. His ridiculously fast-fingered bass line at the start of this song is one of the most iconic moments in the entire Sixpence discography (especially due to how suddenly it cuts in after the cold ending of “Angeltread” on the album – I always loved the sorts of segues where it took a second for me to realize a new song had started), and the way that the entire band falls into lockstep with him throughout this frenetic song is a testament to how tight the short-lived five-piece lineup that made This Beautiful Mess truly was. I really have to wonder what sort of personal torment Slocum was going through when he wrote most of that album, but particularly this song, in which he confesses “I’m not afraid to admit how much I hate myself.” I’m honestly surprised that lyrics as dark as this didn’t sound more alarm bells within the conservative Christian community. No, apparently crossing over into the mainstream with a song about kissing that doesn’t mention God is sacrilege, but borderline suicidal self-hatred is OK. (Really, I think we can just chalk that one up to Sixpence not being high-profile enough at the time for the moral guardians to nitpick the lyrics like they did later.) As a Christian kid who struggled with extended bouts of not liking myself very much, but who thought that wasn’t the sort of thing a person who had confidence in his salvation should ever admit to, this song really punched some holes in that facade, and for that I’m grateful. Ultimately, it’s the kind of confession that is being made with the hope that God still hears it and is capable of rescuing you from the private hell you’ve found yourself in. Still, it was a risky song for them to write because I think it would have been very easily misinterpreted by listeners not inclined to be charitable to what they were trying to achieve with that record.
(from My Dear Machine EP, 2008)
My favorite Sixpence song from the post-reunion years is, sadly, not a terribly well known one. Of the four songs on the My Dear Machine EP that was initially intended as an appetizer for the album to come, it was the only one to not make an appearance on Lost in Transition when it finally came out four full years later. I always kind of resented the album for skipping over it, because while this was one of Sixpence’s more minimal efforts lyrically, it had yet another gorgeous arrangement by Slocum, full of plucked strings and glockenspiel. It felt like a re-imagining of Sixpence strengths for an era in which the baroque pop of artists like Sufjan Stevens was frequently lighting up the blogosphere. Lyrically, it’s open-ended enough that I was never sure who Leigh was begging, “We need you to be around”. It sounded like a short poem intended for someone who was struggling to stay alive, and who meant too much to the writer for their time on Earth to be over just yet.
15. Field of Flowers
(from The Fatherless and the Widow, 1994)
All this time, I’ve been talking about “Kiss Me” like it was a radical change in tone for the band, compared to their mostly darker material from previous albums. But what if I told you that the very first song on their very first album was actually a silly love song that acknowledged its own frivolity? Granted, it’a a silly love song with the trappings of early 90s college rock, so sound-wise it’s quite different from “Kiss Me”. I likely would have gotten a very different impression of the band, had this song been my first exposure to them back in the 90s. Not a bad one, mind you – just not a terribly accurate one given some of the more melancholy turns their music would soon take. (They quoted freaking Walt Whitman in this song. Not sure how that one slipped past the conservative religious watchdogs back in the day, but I’m glad it did.) So I’d probably recommend this song to help ease folks who only know “Kiss Me” and maybe some of their later, poppier stuff into their early work.
16. Amazing Grace (Give It Back)
(from My Dear Machine EP, 2008 / Lost in Transition, 2012)
This was the most confrontational song on the My Dear Machine EP, though you wouldn’t necessarily guess it from the mid-tempo piano groove and the allusion to a beloved hymn in the song’s title. (It was later retitled simply “Give It Back” when it was re-recorded for Lost in Transition, possibly to circumvent expectations of it being an actual hymn cover.) Leigh was reeling from both a divorce and the death of her father when the songs for this EP were written, so it’s not surprising that she leans pretty hard on the “desert” part of the very same “streams in the desert” metaphor that inspired that Streams album she had participated in nearly 10 years prior. Her frustration at not knowing where a supposedly omnipresent God is in the midst of it all comes to a peak in the second verse: “You’re everywhere in every time/And yet you’re so damn hard to find.” (Possibly due to some backlash, this was later bowdlerized to “And yet you’re always hard to find” for the Lost in Transition version. I audibly booed when I heard that the band had backed off on that one. Come on guys, the “d” word really isn’t that naughty in the grand scheme of things.) As with some of the bleaker songs from early in Sixpence’s discography, there is still an underlying hope that those streams will one day flow again. But the song comes from a place of needing to admit just how dry and sun-drenched the landscape has gotten. If we can’t be honest about our cries for help when they most desperately need to be heard, then what kind of God are we Christians even paying lip service to?
17. The Lines of My Earth
(from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
Yet another song about the dry ground is up next – though this time it’s more about fields lying fallow for a season, rather than the desert. This downbeat, kinda-jazzy slow burner must have been a real shock to the system for fans when they first heard it. “This is the last song that I write ’til you tell me otherwise/And it’s because I just don’t feel it anymore”, Slocum confesses in the chorus, because it was written at a point where the band felt so creatively dry and like they were just having their art exploited for someone else’s financial gain that they considered hanging it up for good. The piano and muted trumpet in this song really help to add to that blue feeling of doubting absolutely everything about your self-worth as an artist, and the sonic impact of the drums and guitar seems like it’s been deliberately squelched by the small-scale production here – a trick which I normally hate, since I like for all elements of a song to ring out loud and clear, but when I got why the band was doing it, it really helped to unlock a lot of this deliberately down-tempo and deliberately gloomy album for me. Slocum admitted at one point in an interview that the band had toyed with the idea of making this the final track on the record. Imagine how much of a heart-wrenching cliffhanger ending that would have been! (And how deeply ironic it would have been for that to be the track that inadvertently ended up segueing into the jarringly sunny “There She Goes” on the re-release.)
18. My Dear Machine
(from My Dear Machine EP, 2008 / Lost in Transition, 2012)
With this fun little rocker, the stalled-out machine we once knew as Sixpence None the Richer came roaring back to life like an old fixer-upper of a muscle car that had been sitting on blocks in the yard, a little rusty but still chomping at the bit to get back into the race. The “machine” in this song is analogy for the band’s creative muse, and how they felt they’d just sort of left their artistry to die on the vine during the years Sixpence was dormant. (Not entirely true, because I think Leigh in particular was involved in some worthwhile projects during that time, but I still understand the sentiment here.) They even have a full-fledged horn section on this song, which hinted at a very different direction that the band could have potentially taken on their comeback album. By the time they finally cut through all of the red tape and finally got Lost in Transition out there for the world to hear in 2012, there this song was again, with the exact same recording right at the beginning of the album, and honestly the complete lack of newness to it, or any attempt to follow up on the creative spark it had added to the Sixpence sound later in the album, made the song seem almost antithetical to its own intentions at that point. But first hearing it in 2008… man, I was blown away!
19. Moving On
(from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
Since cooler heads prevailed, and the self-titled album didn’t end up with a threat to break up the band as its closing track, this was the grand finale of that record in its original version. Like much of the album, it’s a rather slow-moving piece, rather unassuming at first, maybe even a bit dry with its cautious bass melody, limp drums, and Leigh’s voice at the beginning, seeming to lack anything resembling a spark that would truly bring the song to live. But the way that this song moves from feeling utterly beaten down to feeling determined that better days will come again is really quite striking. It probably took countless listens for me to realize it, but this is actually a really triumphant ending – it just doesn’t come through until the heavier guitars and the really assertive string section take over in the bridge and final chorus. “I will not let them ruin me again”, Leigh sings, letting her voice ring out as though it were an act of civil disobedience against the oppressive regime of an unethical recording contract. That sign from above that the band should write and record more songs rather than calling it quits has finally been spotted, and thus the album ends with the band determined to keep the creative process going, no matter how much the industry machine tries to put them through the wringer to see how much cash can be squeezed out of them. For those of us not in the recording industry, I think the song is a good reminder that sometimes you have to recognize when relationships are toxic, draw a firm line in the sand, and move on from them. Perhaps they can cause you pain in the short term, but you get to choose whether you’re going to remain utterly beaten down over it, or you’re going to take that power away from them by refusing to play the game any longer.
20. Trust (Reprise)
(from The Fatherless and the Widow, 1994)
This song, which is mostly a paraphrase from one of the Psalms, is surprisingly straightforward given the album it appears on and the band’s overall aesthetic back then. It would be downright jarring to hear “Trust in the Lord with all your heart/Lean not on your own understanding/In all of your ways acknowledge Him/And He will make your paths straight” from the same band that would lay bare their struggles with doubt and self-hatred only a year later, if not for the fact that Leigh makes it clear she’s singing this because she finds it hard to believe and needs the reminder. The song actually appears twice on The Fatherless and the Widow, and while the original version that shows up halfway through the album is a tasteful enough acoustic ballad, it’s the reprise, which re-imagines the song against a mellow backdrop of piano and strings, that really hit a lot of Sixpence fans right in the feels at the end of the record. Looking back, this one still seems to be revered by longtime fans of the band as not only the better arrangement of the song, but one of the best highlights of their early career overall. To me, it would be insane to come up with a “best of Sixpence None the Richer” compilation that doesn’t close with this track.
While a list of my favorite Sixpence songs wouldn’t be complete without the opportunity to show off the depth and breadth of their cover selections, it didn’t feel right ranking these as part of the actual Top 20, because it’s such an apples vs. orange comparison to make. So I’ve “cheated” a bit by including my Top 5 Sixpence cover versions here, in order to free up space for more of their original good stuff above. (Also, you’ll notice that “There She Goes”, by far their most famous cover, is not included here. Unpopular opinion alert: Go die in a fire, you hastily tacked-on impostor.)
1. Love Is Blindness
(from In the Name of Love: Artists United for Africa, 2004)
The Christian rock world has always had a bit of a weird relationship with U2. The band’s most openly spiritual songs tend to be revered, and tons of worship bands wanted to sound like them for a while there, but then there’s that whole “ironic period” from the 90s where a lot of Christians seemed to want to disown them. If a Christian band covers a song from that era, it’ll probably be “One” or maybe “Mysterious Ways” – both of which were covered by members of dc Talk for this exact same compilation. Sixpence, not content to simply play the U2 Karaoke game, went with a dark horse pick for their contribution – “Love Is Blindness”, the closing track from Achtung Baby, which just so happened to be my favorite track from that landmark album. It’s an unsettling song about how the lines can easily get blurred between love, greed, and extremism, and while Sixpence didn’t go for the same vocal melodrama as Bono and the boys did back in 1991, they certainly put their own unique stamp on the song by changing the rhythm to 4/4, putting some spacey reverb on it, and playing the song’s eerily iconic melody on what sounded like a toy xylophone. A lot of casual U2 fans who were in youth group or college fellowship back in 2004 probably didn’t even knew this song existed until they heard it on this compilation – and probably many of them didn’t know what to do with it. But I’m hoping the jarring selection made a lasting impression on at least a few of ’em. It certainly did on me, and it became especially poignant when the news of Sixpence’s dissolution came later that year, making this quite possibly the last song they recorded together until they gave it another go in 2008.
2. Silent Night
(from The Dawn of Grace, 2008)
This is, of course, a Christmas carol about the birth of Christ that pretty much everyone knows, and sings every year if they participate in religious services. I normally don’t even think to include songs from Christmas albums on my lists of personal favorites by an artist, because generally they’re too easy to get right simply by playing them straight, and they’re even easier to get wrong when an artist decides to take risks with tradition. This particular arrangement. from what was technically Sixpence’s first full-length album after getting back together, plays the melody and pacing of the beloved carol completely straight, but throws a curveball by having Jars of Clay’s lead singer Dan Haseltine come in at the second verse, singing an entirely new set of lyrics about feeling lost and hopeless in the bleakest season of the year as a counterpoint to Leigh’s bright assurance that Christ’s birth has brought light to the world. The timing of how these two voices fill in each others gaps and ultimately dovetail together is impeccable, and the song wraps around the listener like a warm blanket, offering solace for those who have a hard time facing this time of year, while offering warm, nostalgic familiarity for those who can’t wait for Christmas to arrive. It’s truly the best of both worlds, in my opinion. Whenever Dan and Leigh sing together, as they have on a few Jars of Clay tracks over the years, it’s guaranteed to be total magic.
3. Dancing Queen
(from Dick OST, 1999)
Alright, I know you’re probably not inclined to hear me out after I put “There She Goes” on blast for being a frivolous pop cover put out to make some quick cash, considering that I’m now giving high praise to an arguably more frivolous pop cover from the very same year. I’m not sure whose idea it was to have a pixie-voiced 90s alternative band cover an kitschy disco classic originally recorded by the likes of ABBA, for the soundtrack to a comedic retelling of the downfall of the Nixon administration that I’m pretty sure almost no one actually watched. But this actually worked out a lot better than expected, and for a kid like me who grew up in a household where “disco” was a dirty word, it turned out to be my introduction to the song. Alright, so Sixpence with glitzy keyboards and that same disco beat my mom used to describe as sounding like the thump-thumping of a dishwasher doesn’t immediately come across as the most believable thing in the world, but it actually makes perfect sense that this band would have the musical chops to absolutely nail the string arrangement and the fun twists and turns in the song’s aggressively catchy melody. I simply haven’t gotten bored of this one in the twenty years since, and I dare say that history has vindicated the once-maligned original version as well (partially thanks to the musical Mamma Mia!, which probably only a few Browadway diehards had even heard of back in 1999). I had the unique experience of singing along to the original at a funeral once – no joke, it was one of the most unique and genuinely moving eulogies ever, based around an odd moment of connection shared between a previously estranged mother and daughter. And thanks to Sixpence, I actually knew all the words.
4. Don’t Dream It’s Over
(from Divine Discontent, 2002)
We’ve revisited the 90s and the 70s (and uh, however long ago a classic Christmas carol was written) with our Sixpence covers so far… so how about the 80s? I’m pretty sure you all know this one. The original version by Crowded House is a stone-cold 80s classic; it still pops up a fair amount on its own, most recently in a stunning episode opener from the final season of The Americans. And the Sixpence version, having been released as a single, made the rounds respectably enough back in 2003 – if you know a cover song of theirs aside from “There She Goes”, this is probably it. While I’m still not sure how I feel about the label meddling that led to the tracklisting on Divine Discontent being shuffled around, a few original songs left off, and this cover version being newly commissioned, I am thankful that Sixpence was able to reintroduce me to the song, which I had a vague memory of hearing at some point over the quarter century since it had first been released in 1986, but couldn’t have told you the title or original artist until Sixpence forced me to look it up. Their version once again plays things pretty straight, but it’s well suited for Leigh’s voice, and I love how Matt nails the mellow guitar melodies and the overall weariness of a song that I now realize was brave for being so anti-consumerist at the height of “The Me Decade”.
5. I Need Love
(from Here on Earth OST, 2000)
My final cover choice is, once again, probably not the song you’re thinking of. Sixpence probably should have known when covering this excellent track by Sam Phillips that, already having an original track in their discography simply called “Love”, with a chorus that stated “I Need Love”, it was going to cause fans some confusion. (It broke my heart to not have enough room for “Love” in my Top 20, by the way – yet another killer bass line from Plasencio in that song, and I’m especially particular to the remix that adds an angry electric guitar riff to the already strong arrangement.) While I don’t know a ton about Sam Phillips, I do know that she had started out her career in CCM as Leslie Phillips, then turned away from it and rebranded herself under the new name after becoming disillusioned with the trappings of the Christian rock world. So the line “I need God, not the political church” really stands out here, especially with Sixpence now trying to straddle that same line of having a Christian background and trying to make sense to a much wider world inclined to think all Christian music has a narrow worldview. The lesson learned in this song seems to be that if you stuff down pain and trauma in the name of clinging dogmatically to belief and to a culture that expects nothing but constant smiles and positive affirmations from you, that crying child inside you is eventually going to have a meltdown and demand to be heard. Sometimes self-care demands that we go against the grain and not worry about who else we might make uncomfortable in the process. I never saw the critically savaged film whose soundtrack album this cover ended up on, so I couldn’t tell you if it’s in any way relevant to the plot. But when I stumbled across this song I previously didn’t know existed, due to a happy Napster accident in the summer of 2000, it definitely struck a lasting chord with me.
Finally, here are the cuts from Sixpence’s actual studio albums that came so close to making my Top 20 list above.
Bleeding (from This Beautiful Mess, 1995)
I Can’t Explain (from This Beautiful Mess, 1995)
Easy to Ignore (from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
Love (from Sixpence None the Richer, 1997)
Still Burning (from Divine Discontent, 2002)
Tension Is a Passing Note (from Divine Discontent, 2002)
Radio (from Lost in Transition, 2012)
Safety Line (from Lost in Transition, 2012)