The Mercy Seat was lifted from Cave’s fifth album Tender Prey, new personnel had been introduced to the Bad Seeds mix to generate more creative energy – Kid Congo Powers (guitar) and multi-instrumentalist Roland Wolf would help push the band’s sound into different spheres, even the volume of the vocal mix was lower and less definitive and articulated than in previous albums, almost inaudible at times, as though Cave wanted the listener to really tune in to consider his message. Cave has said that the record was a nightmare to make, given the number of musicians and producers involved across the recording sessions in the Hansa Studios (Berlin) and the Trident and Strongroom Studios (London), Cave was also still addicted to heroin at this time.Cave delved into Old Testament icons and images with the Mercy Seat, here the electric chair merges with the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:13) in the heavens, that will send the condemned man to a place in the hereafter” I hear stories from the chamber/ How Christ was born into a manger/ And like some ragged stranger/ Died upon the cross/ And might I say it seems so fitting in its way/ He was a carpenter by trade/ Or at least that’s what I’m told…/ In Heaven His throne is made of gold/ The ark of his Testament is stowed/ A throne from which I’m told/ All history does unfold/ Down here it’s made of wood and wire/ And my body is on fire/ And God is never far away.”In this death row narrative Cave is the condemned man, a murderer, who after proclaiming his innocence, ultimately admits his sins and confronts his guilt, and in so doing loses his grip on reality as the time for his ultimate demise draws near. Biblical references abound in Tender Prey, on later albums biblical references are mere allusions or passing references as Cave moved onto other images, for example The Good Son drew on and exploited both Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) and the Prodigal Son (Matthrew 21 and Luke 15), and in his 1985 album The First Born is Dead, the lead single Tupelo, gloried in the power of Elvis Presley to survive natural disasters as well as the death of his stillborn identical twin Aaron, by invoking the symbolism of the flood from Genesis 6-9.
But with the Mercy Seat Cave’s inner tension is revealed when he repeats the chorus no less than fifteen times “And the mercy seat is waiting/ And I think my head is burning/ And in a way I’m yearning/ To be done with all this measuring of truth/ An eye for an eye/ A tooth for a tooth/ And anyway I told the truth/ And I’m not afraid to die.” The choruses vary as the execution proceeds, and the electric chair heats up and cooks its victim–his head and then the seat burns, glows, smokes, melts, while his blood boils in successive versions of the chorus until he returns to the verse.
Like many of Cave’s songs, The Mercy Seat suggests autobiography, and Cave has commented thus “ Before I was able to write things like, ‘I’m not afraid to die’. And kids come up to me and say, ‘Hey, that line means so much to me’. And I have to say I don’t feel that way anymore. I don’t feel as cocky about death as I used to. I wake up in mad panics about death approaching.”
The descent into the personal hell of a condemned man is further intensified by the discordant sound of drums and bass, achieved by using tape loops of a drum stick hitting a bass guitar’s strings, it was a subtle and distinctive element when merged with Mick Harvey’s sparse piano line and the pounding guitars laid on by the Bad Seeds. Cave delivers the song like a jumbled stream-of-consciousness narrative, he crossed the line here between singer and dramatic actor, his vocals are histrionic. Cave liked to lapse into Southern American accents and cadences, and although he has been criticised for being inauthentic in this regard, he pulled of a grimly affecting result here in the process, the song failed to chart locally but it deserved a better fate. Neither the album nor the single charted in Australia on release but it has grown in stature since and has been a permanent fixture in the Bad Seeds set list since 1988.The Mercy Seat’s artful blend of dissonant guitars, electric piano, and strings coupled with powerful and moving lyrics encouraged a legendary performer in Johnny Cash, who knew a thing or two about justice, retribution, prison life, fundamentalist religion and impending mortality, to record a starkly beautiful cover version of this song on his American 111: Solitary Man album in 2000, which was a compliment repaid, as Cave’s Mercy Seat owed a debt to Cash’s 1965 death row lament, 25 Minutes to Go.