The British music biographer Steve Turner has written books on Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, Van Morrison, and Cliff Richard, but most recently he turned his attention to what some believe to be one of the greatest songs ever written. His book Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song was inspired by his pal Bono of U2, who challenged the author to find out the story behind the music.
A book like Turner’s reminds us afresh how truly banal much of popular music is when seen through the lens of history. The Macarena may have captured the whole world’s attention a few years back, but it’s ultimately forgettable.
But every once in awhile the same pop culture that gives us Vanilla Ice and Rico Suave produces something extraordinary. The alt/pop-rock outfit Sixpence None The Richer’s most recent offering, Divine Discontent — particularly one track on the record, called “Melody of You” — is one such example.
One unfortunate result of the success of the group’s millennium-ending, smash-hit song “Kiss Me” (the song peaked at #2 on the U.S. pop charts, charted around the world, and was played at the wedding of Prince Edward) was that the band became known for little else than having written and performed a song about kissing that was featured on the TV show Dawson’s Creek and in the teen film She’s All That.
A close listen to “Kiss Me” would have delighted the literary set — what with its references to a “bearded barley” and a “trail marked on your father’s map” — but few seemed to hear anything beyond the title.
All of which proved to be exceedingly frustrating to the song’s author, guitarist and chief songwriter Matt Slocum. Slocum’s heritage as the son of a bookstore owner caused the youngster to drink deeply of the great works of the West, and even a few of the East (Slocum is a devoted fan of the works of Haruki Murakami). That literary heritage may actually have been why Slocum initially intended to keep “Kiss Me” off of his band’s breakthrough record. Convinced by his label’s president, Steve Taylor, that the song was a winner, Slocum reluctantly conceded — and a major hit was born.
The success of “Kiss Me,” however, has put the band’s seemingly schizophrenic persona under a microscope: They are known on the one hand for the silly little love song that would make McCartney smile, yet also as the band that has done more than any other to keep the memory of his fellow Brit, writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis, in the headlines.
From Letterman to the old Regis and Kathie Lee show, the band with the unusual name was asked over and over again what it meant; and over and over, hundreds of times, they dutifully responded with a retelling of the Lewis story comparing human efforts to please God with the efforts of a child who seeks to please a parent by first borrowing a sixpence from and then buying a present for her with it.
Slocum and lead singer Leigh Nash, who occasionally contributes to the songwriting herself, clearly have more profound things to say, and it could be argued that “Kiss Me” and its follow-up top-ten smash-hit single, a cover of the La’s “There She Goes,” may have actually gotten in the way of that.
Which brings us to the band’s follow-up album, the aptly named “Divine Discontent.” My only way of measuring how long this record has been in the can is by my daughters’ age, since for at least half their unborn lives they were forced to listen to many of these songs. (I have handled distribution of the band’s records to foreign markets off and on for seven years). My kids are now two, and the record they heard endlessly in utero is now in stores.
With a few new tracks added, and a few deleted, Divine Discontent hits a vastly changed pop-music scene than the one Sixpence encountered five years before. The tension between Sixpence being a band enjoyed by NPR-listening Volvo drivers, as versus one cheered on by TRL-loving fans who caught the act on Dawson’s Creek or on the Felicity senior-year soundtrack, is still in play.
To be sure, there are crowd-pleasers for both demographics. The first single, “Breathe Your Name,” is an upbeat number — as is the second, “Tonight,” which offers redemption succinctly over a shimmering bed of pop music: “Tonight it’s time, choose your direction, if you fail, you can make a correction.”
For those who don’t know who Carson Daly is, Sixpence has something as well. Luscious strings and cautious optimism mark “Tension Is A Passing Note,” and for the fan for whom “Kiss Me” was simply an annoyance, Slocum shows empathy in the war-weary song “Paralyzed”: “I go to do an interview about a song three minutes long…”
What has always made Sixpence None The Richer a rare gem has been the uncanny ability Slocum has to write songs that seem to have sprung from Nash’s heart, and Nash’s equally uncanny ability to make his words her own.
All of which makes “Discontent” a pleasant album. But one song on the record moves beyond pleasant to timeless and unforgettable: “Melody Of You.”
What makes “Melody Of You” particularly interesting is that it was created in a time when far too many serious Christians seem to have decided that making music for the whole culture — i.e., for fellow-believers, the marginally religious, followers of other faiths, and atheists alike — is just too difficult and that their music should instead largely consist of repeating the same phrases over and over again ad nauseum for the benefit of fellow believers. Hence the birth of what is known within Christian circles as “worship music,” which often contains key phrases endlessly.
Time/Life infomercials still hawk ’80s hits with former MTV deejays, but they’ve been joined lately by collections of worship songs. And pop singer Michael W. Smith, who once recorded in the mainstream for Geffen and sought to bring Christian ideas to the masses, today tours the country doing Chevrolet-sponsored “worship concerts” primarily aimed at fellow believers.
It is in that zeitgeist that Sixpence and Slocum drop a bomb on the culture with “Melody of You.” Like many great things that happen without necessarily being so intended by their creators, Slocum has crafted and singer Nash has delivered masterfully, perhaps both the greatest worship song and the greatest pop ballad period of the last 50 years.
Opening modestly with a clear nod to the acoustic-guitar stylings of the Kansas classic “Dust In The Wind,” Slocum the master wordsmith begins spinning similes:
You’re a painting with symbols deep
A symphony, soft as it shifts from dark beneath
A poem that flows, caressing my skin
In all of these things you reside and I
Want to flow from the pen, bow and brush
Then paper and string and canvas touch
With ink and the air to dust your light
From morning ‘til the black of night
You’re the scent of an unfound bloom
A simple tune
I only write variations to
A drink that will knock me down on the floor
A key that will unlock the door
Where I hear a voice sing familiar themes
Then beckons me weave notes in between
A bow and a string a tap and glass
You pour me ‘til the day has passed.
Between those verses, Nash offers this chorus:
This is my call I belong to you
This is my call to sing the melodies of you
This is my call I can do nothing else
I can do nothing else.
Together on “Melody of You,” Slocum and Nash have done nothing short of making a mockery of both modern pop music and the worship-music business — for they have managed to prove, in the course of another “song, three minutes long,” that pop music can indeed talk intelligently and succinctly about important and transcendent things, and remind the entire worship-music industry that the Author of the snowflake and the butterfly likely values creative expression over vain repetition.
And while a good bit of modern “worship music” is either entirely forgettable or simply undecipherable to those outside the club, “Melody of You” is a song that can be understood by the most ardent atheist — who, though disbelieving in the God the song is obviously about, can nonetheless understand the love the writer and singer feel for Him.
Sixpence’s hero, C. S. Lewis, once remarked of the church music of his day that it “must be the work either of people so far above me that they can’t reach me or else of people with no imaginations at all.”
Lewis is no longer around, but his philosophical progeny (perhaps the only serious musical heir to his legacy), Sixpence None The Richer, has shown the way to a generation of artists of faith: that it is indeed possible, as Lewis himself showed, to convey orthodox spiritual truths to a broad, mainstream culture in a way that compromises neither the art nor the message.
And just as cultures have been changed and future generations moved by great literary works, Sixpence None The Richer has offered up its own masterpiece in “Melody Of You.”
— Mark Joseph is author of author of The Rock & Roll Rebellion: Why People of Faith Abandoned Rock Music and Why They’re Coming Back.