Sixpence None the Richer — Divine Discontent
Self-hatred probably does more damage to society than Percocet. I have no evidence to back up this assertion. My aim is to write an essay about a mostly forgotten 2002 album by a one-hit-wonder alternative Christian ’90s band, and for such endeavors I do not require evidence.
“So I’m changing who I am,” sings Leigh Nash on Track 9 of Divine Discontent. “Cuz what I am’s not good. And I know you love me now,” she continues, “but I don’t know why you should.”
Now, to the casual listener such lyrics might sound like a run-of-the-mill I’m-sorry-please-forgive-me-lover song. But I know better. I have inside information. I know that the “you” in this song is actually God, and that God is not happy with Leigh Nash, or so Leigh Nash thinks.
If I were God I would be immensely happy with Leigh Nash. Leigh Nash is a gorgeous singer with a unique voice that sounds like someone turned that swooping feeling you felt when your hand brushed against your crush’s while you were both on your way to your 3rd period biology class into music. Leigh Nash has soundtracked some of the happiest moments and movie scenes of many people’s lives. Leigh Nash sings earnest songs earnestly about love, God, and wanting to be a better person. “Well done,” I (as God) say to Leigh Nash. (I am not, of course, God.)
If I were God I would also be immensely happy with Matt Slocum, the musical and lyrical architect behind Leigh Nash’s dazzling vocals. Matt Slocum is an enormously talented multi-instrumentalist and pop song composer. He writes earnest songs earnestly about love, God, and wanting to be a better person. Most of the sentiments expressed in Sixpence songs (I am going to refer to the band Sixpence None the Richer as “Sixpence” in this essay, so try and keep up, you pud) are presumably his, although also presumably Leigh Nash is roughly in agreement with them, or else she would not be able to sing the earnest songs so earnestly.
Anyways. If you’re God, how can you not be happy with Slocum and Nash? Why would you think either of them is “not good”?
And now it occurs to me that what this essay might actually be about is whether or not it is possible that God loves us. This is a difficult thing to determine. But it is important: if God, who created you, does not love you, then you cannot help but hate yourself.
Divine Discontent is one of the best rock albums ever made. This is a tough claim to back up, but I already told you I don’t need evidence. Divine Discontent is 13 tracks of imperfect perfection. It is well-produced, well-performed, occasionally poorly conceived, and sometimes unoriginal. It is packed full of tricky, highly complex pop song composition — I mean how many goddamn times does “Breathe Your Name” modulate, fuck. The cumulative effect of listening to the entire album is overwhelming. You can’t handle it.
Let’s see, a few facts to tie me down to earth. Divine Discontent, as I said, is 13 tracks long. In total it runs about 55 minutes. The shortest track, at 2:55, is “Waiting on the Sun”; the longest track, at 6:36, is “Dizzy.” The album was released in 2002, five years after Sixpence’s previous album, which made them famous.
Of the 13 tracks, 10 were written or co-written by Slocum, two were written or co-written by Nash, one co-written by producer Rick Aniello and the guy from Lifehouse, one co-written by guitarist Sam Kelly, one co-written by somebody named “Ashworth” (according to Wikipedia), and one is a cover of a Crowded House song. The performance credits include a whole bunch of string musicians in addition to the band and other session musicians.
The mood of the album is wistful, heartbreaking, yearning, joyful, and self-hating. It is that last one that concerns me.
I’m not explaining this very well. Listen: mental and emotional self-laceration is an important part of modern Christianity. You know those “Jesus Camp” kids? You ever been to an altar call? Have you ever listened to a pastor in his 20s wearing a cool T-shirt give a passionate sermon about how God wants to send us to Hell, set all of us on fire for all of eternity, because of all the evil things we’ve done? All the evil things you’ve done? And now your guilty brain is at work, picking apart your life and identifying all the mistakes, big and small, you’ve ever made? And now you at last see yourself as a miserable sinner, worthless and horrible, fit only to be burned up in a nightmarish lake of sulfur? To be thrown there by the all-powerful being who literally created you and then (apparently) decided you were garbage? The only being in the universe who actually, truly loves you — and you’ve fucked it all up and now deserve nothing but punishment no matter what you do going forward? And now the band is playing and there are words projected on a screen, and if you just sing those words loud enough, passionately enough, you might be able to move one step closer to not being so terrible? So you sing and you close your eyes and raise your hands and tears stream down your face because you’re so grateful that God decided (at the last minute) that you were worth saving after all? And that he did it by sending his own son to be murdered? (But aren’t you the real murderer?) (You are.) Have you ever done that?
Sixpence is a Christian band. When you understand that, and you understand what being Christian meant in 2002 and means today, that’s when the lyrics begin to hurt.
“So when you break my arms, I’ll take hold of you,” Leigh Nash sings. (God wants to break her arms, but she deserves it.)
“I’m like Thomas doubting.” (Sometimes she requires physical evidence before she believes things, and that’s evil.)
“I know your heart is a hand that takes hold of me.” (God completely dictates her actions.)
“And you move my mind from behind the wheel.” (Same.) (This is the abusive God, remember, who wants to break her arms and set her on fire.)
It hurts to watch someone be abused and not just take it, but say they deserve it. So many Christian kids develop a God who exists in their minds and abuses them. On many of its tracks, Divine Discontent provides a soundtrack for that abuse. This makes me sad.
Leigh Nash’s voice and Sixpence’s music are so pure. God, I love her when she sings “Hey now, don’t dream it’s over.” Is that the most hopeful and encouraging six-word phrase you can create in the English language? It is.
But I love her when she sings the brutal shit too. I love her when she sings, “So I’m changing who I am, cuz what I am’s not good.” But you are good, I yell, and a God who does not see that is an abuser, nothing more.
I said “yell” up there. I do not yell. I never yell. I never lose patience with Leigh Nash and Matt Slocum on their album Divine Discontent. Because I understand them completely in these brutal moments, and so I love them. I know what it is to put yourself down constantly, unceasingly, in an attempt to please God, so I love them. I know what it is to see yourself as insufficient and weak instead of capable and strong, so I love them.
And the truth is, I love all the Christian kids with tears streaming down their faces because they think they’re bad and are very earnestly trying to be good. They’re so good! They’re so good. No one should hurt them.
But the terrible thing about self-hatred is that once someone inculcates the cycle of it inside you, no one can hurt you as much as you hurt yourself.
Though it would seem like the next logical step in the argument, I cannot argue here that Divine Discontent is the sound of Sixpence beautifully hurting themselves — not in its entirety, at least. There is variety in the subject matter. “Tonight” is about indecision. “Paralyzed” is about civil war in the Balkans (damn). “Don’t Dream It’s Over” is about not dreaming it’s over. “Tension Is a Passing Note” is about travel and tension and music theory. “A Million Parachutes” seems to be about missing the Bay Area, which makes it probably the most moving song in the world to me.
I love all the songs, even the songs I don’t like. Divine Discontent feels like an unrecovered part of my past to me. It makes me feel nostalgic for vague memories that never happened and vague feelings I never felt. It briefly gives me an unremembered past when I felt comfortable and welcomed.
I do not think that setting someone on fire because you disagree with their behavior qualifies as “love.” I’m sort of willing to die on this hill, even though once again I do not have any evidence. I also do not think that requiring people who are less intelligent and infinitely less capable than you to think of themselves as “broken and frail” qualifies as love. I think when you love someone, you see their flaws and forgive their flaws, because you also see them as good and valuable, and they make you happy.
“I give you myself, it’s all that I have, broken and frail,” Leigh Nash sings on the epic, dizzyingly gorgeous “Dizzy.” If I were God, it would make me sad to hear that “broken and frail” part. I don’t like watching people I love beat themselves up. I don’t like hatred in any form, including self-.
But I am not God. God is God, and Leigh Nash is Leigh Nash, and so I guess anything is possible. When you’re divine, maybe you have a right to be discontent.
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