This is a hard one to get off my chest. For years I have manfully resisted disclosure. My mind told me no, but my ears said, "Sixpence None the Richer are better than Sonic Youth." I don't think there is a more charming piece of music recorded in the decade of my birth than "Kiss Me."
I know what you're going to say. Isn't that just a wee bit precious? Of course it is—overwhelmingly, almost stiflingly precious, with the chiming guitars, cello, and lyrics so twee they were probably written with a lavender crayon on the back of a piece of sky-blue construction paper ("We'll take the trail marked on your / Father's map"). You know what else was precious? A little record you might have heard called "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The only other song that most people know by Sixpence is their cover of The Las' "There She Goes," which is, obviously, perfect. But there is a whole lot more to be said for them than one brilliant single and a beautiful remake used in that seminal comedy Big Daddy. To get a feel for their self-titled LP, the one with Adam and Eve on the cover, imagine that a bunch of really sweet and earnest evangelical Christian kids—the band's name is taken from a famous passage in C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity—tried to make their own version of Revolver. "The Lines of My Earth" is a very sweet McCartneyesque country love song, complete with steel guitar and horns. "Easy to Ignore" is worthy of the mid-'60s acoustic Lennon of "I'm a Loser." "We Have Forgotten" is the sort of Anglophile power-pop song Stevie Smith might have written for the soundtrack of Ghost World.
It is hard to escape the impression that there must have been some kind of Rumors-era Fleetwood Mac-style tension at work when these songs were written and recorded. There is clearly a lot of pain here and even more fear. It is all very heartfelt and effective. It is also a good reminder that people who are chaste have romantic lives every bit as fraught and tragic and winsome as the rest of the population (something that heathens who cry during Masterpiece Theater somehow seem to forget).
It's sort of astonishing that nobody has pointed out how Christ-haunted the jangly easy listening of the late '80s and early '90s was. Sinéad O'Connor, after all, is a heretic not an atheist. Joan Osborne's "One of Us" is a terrible song, but the religious atmosphere it conjures up—of empty pews and dogmatic ignorance and the lonely pontiff trying to build consensus in a church made up of modernists, well-meaning liberals, and a huge lay population of indifferentists—will inspire a kind of dreadful nostalgia in anyone who grew up towards the end of John Paul II's papacy. The joke is, obviously, that all the questions posed in the lyrics are ones that any well-catechized child could answer. I remember my mother, a rap fan, telling me that it was a Very, Very Bad Song.
The Sundays, who are almost as underrated as Sixpence, wrote about fornication with the world-weary nostalgia of penitents who haven't quite arrived at their firm amendment of purpose. "Summertime," for example, drenches the charging, insistent vocal in guilty reverb. It's the three-minute single equivalent of the Wife of Bath saying, "Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote / That I have had my world as in my tyme."
But that's all very heady stuff. The real point about Sixpence is not where they fit in to the sociology of Christian decline but the fact that their songs are delightful. It isn't fashionable to say so, but that's true of so many things. The world would be a brighter and more wholesome place if we all were a bit more honest about the songs we pull up on YouTube with incognito mode. So let me just add in closing that "You Get What You Give" by New Radicals is a stone classic and that Kid Rock's "Only God Knows Why" is a worthy successor to the great Skynyrd ballads. That woke parody of Guns N Roses, "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes, is better than the original. "Take Me Home Tonight" by Eddie Money is basically perfect. What else? Oh, yes: "My Heart Will Go On," with its pan flute and gated reverb, is as big and dumb and effective as the movie it's from because Céline made it work with the sheer force of her conviction. Which is exactly what more pop snobs would benefit from.