This Beautiful Mess
by Sixpence None the Richer
Original release: 1995 R.E.X. Music
Re-released: 1999 Flying Tart Music
Produced by: Armand John Petri
Total playing time: 49:46
Vocals: Leigh (Bingham) Nash
Guitar, Cello: Matt Slocum
Guitar, vocals: Tess Wiley
Drums: Dale Baker
Bass: J.J. Plasencio

Track list:

  1. Angeltread1 (Slocum)
  2. Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death2 (Slocum/Arhelger)
  3. Bleeding1 (Slocum)
  4. Within a Room Somewhere 1 (Slocum)
  5. Melting Alone 1 (Slocum)
  6. Circle of Error 1 (Slocum)
  7. The Garden2 (Bingham/Baker/Slocum/Arhelger)
  8. Disconnect 3 (Wiley)
  9. Thought Menagerie 2 (Slocum)
  10. Maybe Tomorrow 1 (Slocum)
  11. Drifting 1 (Slocum)
  12. I Can't Explain 1 (Slocum)

Contemporary Christian Music is many things to many people, but very often it has negative connotations (and I'm not just talking about non-Christians here). Many people think Sixpence None the Richer sold out when they released their 19974 eponymous CD, some don't realize they were a Christian band to begin with. Many dismiss CCM as a marketing gimic, or the refuge of mediocre musicians, or simply being full of meaningless JPM (Jesus per minute) lyrics. If you ever listen to this CD, you can forget all that. It's definitely Christian, anything but mediocre, and has very thoughtful lyrics full of interesting metaphors and imagery.

This Beautiful Mess, with its Picasso-esque cover art, was the second CD released by Sixpence, coming two years after The Fatherless and the Widow. Fatherless had a pop/easy listening sound to it, so the addition of Wiley, Baker, and Plasencio to the group allowed for a heavier, more alternative sound for This Beautiful Mess, and Slocum's lyrics had greatly matured as well. The result is one of the most honest, and dark CCM albums you'll ever hear. There are no praise songs on this CD. Not a single track could be considered uplifting. It's all about wrestling with doubt, trying to come to grips with the whole "how can a loving God create a world full of pain" issue, and dealing with self-hatred. I'd almost think Slocum was writing the story of my life were it not for his thanking C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton in the liner notes. I'm introspective and wrestle with my beliefs a lot, but I have nothing on those two. This CD obviously has a very limited market due to the nature of the material. I think Sixpence almost had to turn to pop stuff like "Kiss Me" and "There She Goes" after this CD because they turned off a lot of the CCM crowd who don't like to question their faith. But questioning our beliefs is the only way to come to a truer understanding of what we believe. This one pulls no punches.

Right from track 1, it's obvious that this CD isn't your typical "praise Jesus" music. "Angeltread" starts out slow and mournful with:

Crickets rhythmically sing
Their mournful melodies
Of monotone by request
But they fail, they fail
To soothe the mess

The other verses are slow as well, continuing the imagery of lying awake at night, watching the moonlight shining on the wall, and praying "help me, help me through the night". But the chorus slams you with guitars as Nash sings, "Is this some kind of holy test?"

The listener never gets a chance to recover before the bass intro of the second track, "Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death", hits them followed by a surreal combination of up-tempo pop music and crushed-soul lyrics like "I'm not afraid to admit how much I hate myself" and "I'm so afraid I'll amount to nothing, because I cannot love".

The first sign of hope or faith comes with "Bleeding", another strange sounding track with mournful sounding guitars and a pop drum beat, and Nash's plaintive voice singing:

I'm alone, I'm alone
And I'm beating my soul
To make it bleed a drop of hope
Then I'll drink it up in a golden cup
And let it grow inside

In my opinion, the next three tracks, "Within a Room Somewhere", "Melting Alone" and "Circle of Error" are the best on the CD. "Within a Room Somewhere" starts out slow and poetic, with bursts of energy during the chorus, and brings the first overt mention of God, and a more hopeful tone:

I know you are there
Catching, carrying
This beautiful mess

It ends with a bit of a guitar jam before the start of "Melting Alone", a very angsty song which asks "Will I ever know what's wrong with me?". I've included this one on many a compilation of depressing tunes. "Circle of Error" is the most honest song about questioning faith and struggling to believe that I have ever heard. I can't count the number of times that I've been trying to sort out just what the heck I believe and why, only to find that "I go round and round again", never really getting anywhere. The frustration this can cause can lead to thoughts like:

And by the way
When I kneel to pray
It never seems you're there
And I'll admit that I do not try
When it's easier to sit down and cry
I'm so full of doubt
Want to let it out
Let it out all over you

"The Garden" is in my opinion the weakest song on the CD. It's centered around some kind of left at the altar metaphor that could mean different things to different people. It's not as personal as the other tracks, and in my opinion just generally doesn't seem to fit. I don't think it's a coincidence that this is one of the few tracks that Slocum didn't write by himself, probably a case of too many cooks spoiling the soup. "Disconnect" is the only song that Slocum didn't have a hand in writing at all, but Wiley managed to keep the same tone, and it fits quite well with the rest of the CD. This is another one that fits well with my personal experience, over-analyzing every aspect of my life, not just my religious beliefs:

Frustration forgotten through slumber
It's there when I wake
Defeated before I rise
I'd pull myself out of this mire
If I could collect my strength
Or muster an ounce of desire
Finding the words
And making them mine

"Thought Menagerie" as the title suggests is another one about introspection. If you were only to listen to the music, it would sound like an ordinary pop song with a quick tempo, light on the guitars and a little bit of keyboards. It seems very odd when you realize that the lyrics are about struggling to resolve the conflict between humanism and faith in God. "Maybe Tomorrow" is a metaphoric prayer for help because "...I am having a little trouble with myself." "Drifting" is similar to "Maybe Tomorrow" (even the guitar riffs sound about the same) but uses different imagery (drowning, reaching out for help vs. turning the pages of a book hoping that the ending will change). The CD ends on a hopeful note with "I Can't Explain":

If this pain is so real
There's a hand that someday must heal
And give us the words
That time steals and won't let us say

This is an apparent affirmation of the belief that pain, suffering and misunderstanding will be relieved in the next life, if not in this one.

If you were looking for something like Amy Grant or Sonicflood, you've come to the wrong place. Ditto if you're not into living the examined life.

1© 1995 Le Tiger Sur Un Ballon (ASCAP)
2© 1995 Le Tiger Sur Un Ballon/Cloudwall Music
3© 1995 Songs for Your Mom (ASCAP)
4 Re-released twice in 1998, first with re-mixes of several tracks, and again in order to add "There She Goes".