A Look Back: Sixpence None The Rich

For a band whose body of work is heavy on songs about giving up, you might think that Sixpence None the Richer would have given up long ago. But this is the strange and wonderful thing about Sixpence: that they endured not one but two protracted legal battles over record contracts, that they absorbed criticism from Christians for being too secular and from mainstream media for being too Christian, that they never kept a steady lineup of musicians, but for ten years they wrote about sadness and longing and hope; for ten years guitarist/songwriter Matt Slocum and singer Leigh Nash persevered and made music that mattered. Sixpence’s songs tread the line of faith and doubt, of prettiness and pain, of divine hope and divine disappointment. “Christian Music,” whatever the term means to you, benefited from this band.

One could say a lot about Sixpence None the Richer, who just announced they are a band no longer, but it comes down to this: they were faithful to their God and to their art, and that alone is worth celebrating. For a lot of us, Sixpence was the first band that proved Christians could create brutally beautiful, honest art without pandering to the lowest common denominator. Their first album, The Fatherless and the Widow, featured a 17-year-old Leigh Bingham on vocals. Her voice and Slocum’s songwriting would mature naturally, but these were the first buds of a musical partnership that would bloom brilliantly. Highlights include the hypnotic “Meaningless” and Psalms-inspired “Trust.” It was mostly catchy and acoustic, but there was a sophistication to the young band that surpassed most of what was passing as “alternative” music made by Christians in the early 1990s. When youth groups were listening to the latest upbeat, Christian major-label schlock, people like me were playing Sixpence’s This Beautiful Mess, a desperate plea of an album, full of confused lyrics and distorted, melodic guitar sounds (even when he was rocking out, Slocum knew how to get a tune stuck in your head). This Beautiful Mess begins with a question: Is this some kind of holy test? and ends with the frantic “I Can’t Explain” because sometimes there are no easy answers.

Since that album, I’ve come to see the last song on a Sixpence album as the record’s thesis statement, the exclamation mark on the point the album has made. On their self-titled release (yes, the “Kiss Me” album), which is mostly about frustration with the battle between art and commerce and which is possibly the most perfect pop album ever made, the final statement is “Moving On.” An orchestra swells and spills over as Nash repeats the mantra of its chorus: I will not let them ruin me again. Weary, but hopeful.

The single for “Kiss Me” contains one non-album track, “Sad But True,” which addresses the band’s relationship to the music business more bluntly than any other song they’ve recorded. It’s the opposite of “Kiss Me” in almost every way: dark, distorted, frustrated and rocking. Like “Moving On,” it’s nearly defiant in its insistence that quality, not sales, is the artist’s priority. Beauty never sells/and money makes the rules, sings Leigh. It’s sad but true. This is the sad story of Sixpence None the Richer: that they were a pop band making beautiful, complicated, dark music, but all anyone wanted to hear was “Kiss Me.”

I don’t mean to be so cynical. Of course there were many fans who appreciated Sixpence for their pop sensibilities and their symphonic subtlety alike. In the way that Radiohead had to battle and kill “Creep” in order to move on with their career (see their song “My Iron Lung”), the second half of Sixpence’s career was a struggle with “Kiss Me.” Their last release, Divine Discontent, was their most ambitious and it was impressive. I heard the pre-release that was first issued—before songs were deleted and new ones added—and it was incredible, especially the guitar epic “Too Far Gone,” which is over seven minutes of classic Slocum riffs. “Too Far Gone” was not released—and I can’t help but wonder if it could have been if the band wasn’t being prodded to sell another million albums.

Still, the version of Divine Discontent that was released continued Sixpence’s journey into pop perfection, this time with the means to match the ambition of their previous efforts. The production is bigger, the band tighter, the strings fuller—but the record is front-loaded with potential singles and as such does not hit its stride until “Still Burning,” another song about giving up and starting over. Discontent does not end triumphantly like Sixpence None the Richer, but nostalgically, with “A Million Parachutes.” The lyrics tell of a solitary figure at home alone, listening to music and watching the snow fall as he mentally replays his memories: I miss the warmth/and I miss the sun/I miss the ocean/I miss everyone. The song is about a specific time, but it’s a universal feeling, longing for a past that seems perfect. This is what I feel now when I think of Sixpence None the Richer. I’ll miss looking forward to their live shows, I’ll miss the waiting (and waiting and waiting) for a new record, and I’ll miss the way they managed to get over a million teen-movie fans to buy an album about making art that pleases God.

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It’s easy to imagine that the constant tension the band faced throughout the career was at least something of a factor in their decision to shut down the show. I’m immediately ready to sanction blame for the band’s demise on any number of sources: the people who marketed them as a teen-pop band, the labels that withdrew their financial support and the Christians who were down on them for being too depressing. Whatever the truth is, it’s no fun when your favorite band breaks up. But they’ve gotten their burning bush-type sign, and really, there’s nothing wrong with moving on when it’s time. Thanks for the songs.

[Joel Hartse is a young person from Seattle, WA, who spends his days in the world of nonprofit fundraising and his nights playing, listening to and writing about rock and roll.]

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