Classic Songs: “The Mercy Seat”: Nick Cave, art, and the presence of death. (Loren Kantor, 3/21/24, Splice Today)

In his 2020 book Stranger Than Kindness, Cave reflects on how he came to write the song. “In the early 80s I was fully engaged in the writing of my novel And the Ass Saw the Angel. I sat in a small room in Berlin, typing away, day and night, sleeping little. When I reached an impasse with the novel, I would scroll the odd lyric line on a scrap of paper beside me, ostensibly a song about a man going to the electric chair. The song was at best a distraction, a doodle, a song I never looked fully in the eye. But songs have their own journeys and in time assert their sovereignty. ‘The Mercy Seat’ was such a song.”

In the Bible, atonement for the tribes of Israel is possible only when a rabbi adorns the Ark’s lid (“the mercy seat”) with sacrificial blood. When Cave sings the story of the doomed inmate, he sings of death in this life and God’s judgment in the next. Cave juxtaposes the eye for an eye retribution of the Old Testament against the forgiveness offered in the New Testament. The inmate knows his hours are numbered and his thoughts turn to God.

In Heaven His throne is made of gold
And 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.