The Mercy Seat (song)

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"The Mercy Seat"
Single by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
from the album Tender Prey
ReleasedJune 1988 (UK)[1]
Length7:17 (album version)
5:04 (single version)
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds singles chronology
"The Singer"
"The Mercy Seat"

"The Mercy Seat" is a song written by Nick Cave (lyrics and music) and Mick Harvey (music), originally performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on the 1988 album Tender Prey. The song has been covered by others, including Johnny Cash, Camille O'Sullivan and Unter Null. Rolling Stone editor Toby Creswell lists it as one of the 1001 greatest songs.[3]


The song tells the story of a man about to be executed by the electric chair. The "Mercy Seat" refers both to the kaporet (the lid of the Ark of the Covenant) and to the electric chair. The song is laden with allusions to Christianity; in the Old Testament, the mercy seat is the symbol of the throne of God over the Ark of the Covenant.

The song contains the following chorus:

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 proof.
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I'm not afraid to die.

This section is repeated fifteen times during the course of the song, with a number of variations in the text. Specific allusions to scripture include those to Leviticus 16:11–19 and Leviticus 24:19–21.[4]

Like many of Cave's songs, "The Mercy Seat" suggests autobiography. Critics have noted the confluence of themes from the Old and the New Testament, especially in its juxtaposing the "eye for an eye" justice of the Old Testament with the merciful appearance of the "ragged stranger," Christ. This "problem of the relationship between the law and forgiveness" remains unresolved.[5]

Cave later said, "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 sort of say I don't feel that way any more. I don't feel as cocky about death as I used to. I wake up in mad panics about death approaching."[6]


On the original album version, Cave's vocals are delivered over a thick backing of guitars, organ, and strings, with much of the text nearly inaudible. An acoustic version was also released as part of a bonus CD/7" for the album The Good Son entitled Acoustic Versions from Tender Prey. This version was later reissued to appear on both the Stripped EP and B-Sides & Rarities. The song is a live standard of Cave's, and has been performed at almost every concert since 1988; an acoustic live version, performed in the United States in 1989, appears in the documentary The Road to God Knows Where.[7] A much louder version appears as the opening track of the 1993 album Live Seeds.

An acoustic version recorded in May 1998 for Keith Cameron's Xfm show, The Carve Up, was released on a compilation CD of the same name in 1999.[8][9]

The song also features on the 2013 live album Live from KCRW.


"The Mercy Seat" is widely regarded as one of Cave's best songs. In 2020, Far Out ranked the song number four on their list of the 20 greatest Nick Cave songs,[10] and in 2023, Mojo ranked the song number one on their list of the 30 greatest Nick Cave songs.[11]

Notable covers and references[edit]

Johnny Cash, American Recordings III[edit]

Country singer Johnny Cash covered the song on his 2000 album American III: Solitary Man, as one of a number of songs Cash sang about the "convicted innocent."[12] Cash stated he heard the song after seeing the news about executions in Texas, and that more attention should be paid to capital punishment: "If a man's been there 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and do we still want to kill him."[13] Cash's version features guitar, organ, and piano accompaniment.

Cave commented on Cash's cover in a number of interviews: "Like all the songs he does, he made it his own. He's a great interpreter of songs – that's part of his genius. These are the things that can't be taken away from you."[14] He called it a personal highpoint: "'It doesn't matter what anyone says,' remarked Cave proudly. 'Johnny Cash recorded my song.'"[15]

Other covers[edit]

Others have recorded covers of this song. Stromkern released a cover on the 1997 album Flicker Like a Candle. The electro-industrial music project Unter Null covered the song for the 2010 album Moving On. The Red Paintings also covered the song on the Nick Cave tribute album 'Eye for an Eye'. The German Dark Wave band Goethes Erben released a translated version of the song, entitled Sitz der Gnade.[16]

References to the song[edit]

Four lines from the song serve as one of the epigraphs for Neil LaBute's 2002 play The Mercy Seat.[17]

Track listing[edit]

The track listing for the single is:[18]

  • CD
  1. "The Mercy Seat" (single version)
  2. "New Day" [actually "New Morning" mistitled]
  3. "From Her to Eternity" (film version)
  4. "Tupelo" (single version)
  • 7"
  1. "The Mercy Seat" (single version)
  2. "New Day"
  • 12"
  1. "The Mercy Seat" (full-length album version)
  2. "New Day" [actually "New Morning" mistitled]
  3. "The Mercy Seat" (video mix)


Chart (1988) Peak
UK Indie Chart[19] 3

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - The Mercy Seat" – via
  2. ^ "10 Goth-Rock Albums Every Music Fan Should Own". 8 October 2019.
  3. ^ Creswell, Toby (2006). 1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them. Thunder's Mouth Press. pp. 97–98. ISBN 978-1-56025-915-2.
  4. ^ Boer, Roland (Spring 2006). "Under the Influence? The Bible, Culture and Nick Cave". Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. 12: 3. doi:10.3138/jrpc.12.1.003. Archived from the original on 8 October 2012. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  5. ^ Eaglestone, Dave; Karen Welberry; Tanya Dalziell (2009). "From Mutiny to Calling Upon the Author: Cave's Religion". Cultural seeds: essays on the work of Nick Cave. Ashgate. pp. 139–53 [147]. ISBN 978-0-7546-6395-9. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  6. ^ Walker, Clinton (Summer 1995). "Nick Cave Evil's Elder Statesman". Triple J Magazine. No. 1. Sydney, NSW: Gore and Osment. pp. 12–17.
  7. ^ Danks, Adrian; Karen Welberry; Tanya Dalziell (2009). "Red Right Hand: Nick Cave and the Cinema". Cultural seeds: essays on the work of Nick Cave. Ashgate. pp. 109–21. ISBN 978-0-7546-6395-9. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  8. ^ "Various - The Carve-up". Discogs. Retrieved 15 September 2016.
  9. ^ "About me". 23 March 2014. Retrieved 15 September 2016.
  10. ^ Whatley, Jack (22 September 2020). "Nick Cave's 20 greatest songs of all time". Far Out. Retrieved 6 December 2023.
  11. ^ "Nick Cave's 30 Greatest Songs Ranked". Mojo. 14 November 2023. Retrieved 6 December 2023.
  12. ^ Hus, John (2008). Johnny Cash and philosophy: the burning ring of truth. Open Court. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-8126-9645-5.
  13. ^ Urbanski, Dave (2003). The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash. Relevant Media Group. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-9729276-7-3.
  14. ^ Donovan, Patrick (5 December 2003). "The Quiet Son". The Age. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  15. ^ Gilbey, Ryan (12 March 2006). "A Renaissance man for our times". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  16. ^ "Goethes Erben Discography". Retrieved 18 April 2011.
  17. ^ Bigsby, CWE (2007). Neil LaBute: stage and cinema. Cambridge UP. p. 116. ISBN 978-0-521-88254-5.
  18. ^ "Nick Cave Discography on "From The Archives"". From The Archives. Retrieved 9 June 2008.
  19. ^ Lazell, Barry (1997). Indie Hits 1980-1989. Cherry Red Books. Archived from the original on 5 June 2011. Retrieved 5 September 2014.