song stories #2 Nick Cave 'The Mercy Seat'

Easter has come and gone, and whether you celebrate it or not – it’s a time symbolic of renewal, rebirth, and the Christian concept of resurrection. And if you’re a pagan – let’s not forget fertility and new life [and all those Easter eggs!].

The concept of belief – of what you believe in – is a tricky thing. What gives your life a sense of meaning, a foundation and purpose, is inextricably tied to whatever conception you have of who you are, how you see your place in the world, what you’ve been taught and what you’ve experienced. Highly subjective, it evolves through time and it’s not something people find easy to talk about. Definitely not a topic to bring up at a family get together, or a social do with friends. Way too serious! Also potentially alienating, and great fodder for a bang-up argument.

However, it’s fertile territory for writers. And songwriters.

Nick Cave is a fave of mine and his predilection for the Old Testament comes to mind and a particular standout song, ‘The Mercy Seat’.

A brilliant song.

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Recorded on the Bad Seed’s album, Tender Prey [1988], it showcases Cave’s narrative songwriting and the startling fusion of Cave’s fascination with crime, death, Old Testament justice, murder and horror. And a fair whack of hallucinatory imagery [drugs anyone?]. 

This definitely has nothing to do with the fluffy Easter Bunny feel I began this post with, but it does touch on the concept of belief. Whether there is a grain of ‘truth’ to the lyrics as far as what Cave personally believes, is up for grabs.

Cave speaks about the process of writing The Mercy Seat’:

“I was concentrating on writing my novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel. ‘The Mercy Seat’ was a song that I would add to over the months, that I wasn’t really paying attention to, weirdly. It was a thing growing on the side, a kind of… organism growing on the side of the novel that I just kept adding to and adding to. It was written from a different place, a less conscious place than some of the other songs, I think. And I think it has quite a strange, obscure lyric to it in the end.

“It’s a really great song – it’s the staple song of the Bad Seeds live, mainly because it has the capacity to lend itself to seemingly infinite variations, and it can adapt to whatever we happen to be into at the time – a folk song, or a headbanger number. I think that was the one song I wrote when I was writing the novel.”

And on the songwriting/writing process, Nick Cave has this to say:

“As far back as I can remember, there was something that thrilled me about telling a story, and it’s absolutely the way I think, and when I sit down and try and write a song, I think in a narrative way. I don’t think James Brown does that – it just comes rolling out of his heart. But lately, I’ve been trying to work out a way of writing so a listener doesn’t have to be hearing a story to enjoy what I do. 

“Round the (Birthday Party’s) Junkyard album, I wrote a song called ‘King Ink’ that I listened to and finally felt that I’d done something that seemed original and authentic to myself – that I’d arrived somewhere with that lyric. I think before that I was floundering around all my various influences, and people I wanted to write like: poets, writers. I started to get a voice in that particular song…

“When I get too tangled up in the language, I get to a point with lyric-writing where I start to disappear up my own rectum and it’s always nice to pull back and go back to something that is basic and from the heart. I always return to the blues – especially John Lee Hooker. He has a certain style of writing that begins with one idea in mind, and by riffing on a theme, ends up with something very different. It makes for a very perplexing, structurally strange kind of lyric and I love that kind of thing.”

[For the full article from ‘Uncut’, see link]