Girish Mahajan

The Mercy Seat (song)

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Released  1988
Genre  Alternative rock
Writer(s)  Nick Cave, Mick Harvey
Format  CD single, 7", 12"
Label  Mute Records
Length  7:17 (album version) 5:04 (single edit)

"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.



The song tells the story of a man about to be executed by the electric chair. The "Mercy Seat" refers both to the throne of God in the heavens, which the man feels he will soon visit, 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.

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.

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."


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. 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.

Track listing

The track listing for the single is:

  • 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)


    The Mercy Seat (song) Wikipedia

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