The Mercy Seat

It began when they come took me from my home
And put me on Dead Row
Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know
And I'll say it again
I am not afraid to die

I began to warm and chill
To objects and their fields
A ragged cup, a twisted mop
The face of Jesus in my soup
Those sinister dinner meals
The meal trolley's wicked wheels
A hooked bone rising from my food
All things either good or ungood

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

Interpret signs and catalogue
A blackened tooth, a scarlet fog
The walls are bad, black, bottom kind
They are sick breath at my hind
They are sick breath at my hind
They are sick breath at my hind
They are sick breath gathering at my hind

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

Like my good hand I tatooed E.V.I.L. across it's brother's fist
That filthy five! They did nothing to challenge or resist

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

Into the mercy seat I climb
My head is shaved, my head is wired
And like a moth that tries
To enter the bright eye
So I go shuffling out of life
Just to hide in death awhile
And anyway I never lied

My kill-hand is called E.V.I.L.
Wears a wedding band that's G.O.O.D.
Tis a long-suffering shackle
Collaring all that rebel blood

And the mercy seat is burning
And I think my head is glowing
And in a way I'm hoping
To be done with all this weighing up of truth
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And I've got nothing left to lose
And I'm not afraid to die

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
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway there was no proof
Nor a motive why

And the mercy seat is glowing
And I think my head is smoking
And in a way I'm hoping
To be done with all this looks of disbelief
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway there was no proof
Nor a motive why

And the mercy seat is smoking
And I think my head is melting
And in a way I'm helping
To be done with all this twisted of the truth
A lie for a lie
And a truth for a truth
And I've got nothing left to lose
And I'm not afraid to die

And the mercy seat is melting
And I think my blood is boiling
And in a way I'm spoiling
All the fun with all this truth and consequence
An eye for an eye
And a truth for a truth
And anyway I told the truth
And I'm not afraid to die

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
A life for a life
And a truth for a truth
And anyway there was no proof
But I'm not afraid to tell a lie

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
And a truth for a truth
And anyway I told the truth
But I'm afraid I told a lie


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The Mercy Seat song meanings
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  • +7
    General CommentI don't know how this one could have gotten past me, but I just discovered this song. I guess everyone else already knew this, but clearly one of the master works of the era, and the amazing cover by Cash will likely seal it as an all-time classic. I want to share some of my thoughts about this song, but I don’t have time to write this as well as I’d like. Please forgive its excessive length.

    First, a note on the music. It's very unusual for a song from the rock tradition. No verse course arrangement, just a building repetition, interrupted early in the song by narration in the same voice. Clearly a product of its time, the studio version is produced as an “alternative” cut with a pretty typical post-punk sound. It’s almost like no one quite knew what to do with this song, including, one assumes, Cave himself. It takes a few listens for it to sink in that there is something much deeper going on here than the style initially suggests. In later, live versions, Cave seems to have come to grips with exactly what he has here and performs it in a more fitting way. That’s not to take anything away from the studio version. The kind of weird juxtaposition of substance and style make it something that you have to discover and lets you go deeper into the song with repeated listens. The work it takes to pick through the pop veneer makes you appreciate your discovery that much more.

    The construction of the song has a great trick that is remarkably effective. The chord progression itself is wonderful, but it’s eight measures long, and seven of them build a tension that is only briefly resolved by the eighth before it immediately returns to uneasiness. It makes the whole song feel incredibly intense and unrelenting, which is analogues to the subject: a man on death row awaiting the electric char.

    Which brings us to the lyric. There have been great song writers whose lyrics stand alone as poetic statement, but this has to be one of the best bits of poetry in its own right released on a rock record. It’s possible that I want it to be even better than it obviously is, but I read a little more into it than some. In the beginning monologue he proclaims his innocence, or at least sort of. “Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know”. Later he talks about his hands and fingers, one evil and one good, of which he observes “That filthy five! They did nothing to challenge or resist”. As if to proclaim his innocence, blaming the whole incident on these filthy five fingers. Tellingly, it is the “kill-hand” that “Wears a wedding band that's G.O.O.D.” He calls the ring “a long-suffering shackle collaring all that rebel blood”.

    I read all of that to give an ambiguous meaning to guilt or innocence. A man, maybe not cut out of the same cloth as everyone else, doing his best to live as society dictates but finding himself unable to live up to the expectations. It’s a cognitive dissonance that eventually plays out in murder, but a murder this complex man does not blame himself for. This is a character that lives uncomfortably in a world not of his making. And as such, death can almost be welcome, a sentiment repeated throughout the song.

    The middle verses about Jesus are the key to the whole thing, I think. He notes the irony that Christ was born and then, after making a life as a carpenter, he is crucified on a work of carpentry. He paints, quickly, a view of Jesus as another character who wasn’t able to live as others expected and ultimately met the same fate he himself awaits. He then goes on to further identify himself as a Christ figure by noting that He now sits on his heavenly throne, but down here it’s made of wood and wire, an obvious reference to the electric chair he will soon take his seat in.

    But what to make of that last line: “But I’m afraid I told a lie.” I don’t think this is a confession of guilt. That’s already happened, really. We know he did it, and we know he did it for no reason anyone else could call “motive”. So what’s the lie? I think there’s a clue in the verse structure. The line comes in the same resolve measure that’s repeatedly told us “I’m not afraid to die”. A man who has lived his life with conflicting thoughts once again has to face the fact that what he’s told himself to be true may not be. As he climbs into what he’s convinced himself is the mercy seat, he realizes that he actually is afraid.

    Weather he means it the way I hear it or not, it’s difficult to argue that this song is anything but brilliant. Clearly one of the best songs of the era, maybe one of the best rock songs ever. As an observation at the end of a review about a song that deals with death, I’d say this to Nick Cave. Walk through life confidant that, in a world of mortal men, you have made a mark that transcends mortality. A true masterpiece that will leave a strong legacy.
    fasteddie72on April 05, 2011   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI must say that this song confirmes that nothing is black or white. How can anyone see what is good and what is bad, when we twist it all. So many people has died on a chair, or soo, and ho's to blame for it? Their blood is on our hands. We are no better! Just a bunch of a hypocrites. Can't we learn on a cilling Jeasus. No! There was a lot of "Jesuses" throughout the history.
    So, whay would killer believed our judgment, and accepted that he is guilty?
    Just in a moment of death, when he's alone with God and freed from all delusions of a mankind, he realises what he truly has done.
    Just my opinion.
    Great song!!!
    eudaimonijaon February 24, 2011   Link
  • +2
    General CommentGreat work all. Cave is a master of metaphor and it is good to see so many people care about what he is actually trying to say.

    While there are many themes in the song, the predominant one uses guilt and innocence to explore the objectivity of truth. In this regard it is greatly influenced by books such as "The Outsider" and Crime and punishment. The "I begin to chill to objects and their fields" line is taken straight from Dostoevsky.

    From our characters view, having denounced mans right to judge him, God is the paradigm of truth, and the song explores the implications of such belief with great depth and subtle precision.
    The uncertainty of his actions and and as such why he would commit them if they were wrong or unjust, leads to the analogies with Jesus, who is the ultimate victim of his own fate.
    It is fitting that as the song begins to reach it's climax and his disdain becomes bolder that he picks the wedding band, a symbol of Gods holiest institution on earth, as the shackle of his rebel blood, life and spirit, which is suggestive of a truth he can't explore, indicating the fallacy of his God.

    The last line "I'm afraid I told a lie" is not a submission of guilt, it simply sums up a fearful yet enduring uncertainty on all matters, as he is not sure of guilt or innocence or god or truth or any other yardsticks, right or ability, to measure his supposed crime.

    Cash's version is of a different flavor, his emphasis put on haunting nobility, a beat prince trudging towards a destined fate in almost heroic fashion, while Cage focuses on the subjective, with dark, all too human, undertones creeping through the prose. Which makes it, lyrically at least, a far more interesting work.
    Luciffiluson January 27, 2009   Link
  • +1
    General Commentwell, i agree with that interpretation, but not wholly.

    i think that in the last few moments of his life he doesn't know whether he's innocent or not.

    if he did it, he's told himself so strongly that he was innocent, that it's hard to accept guilt.

    and if he didn't, he's been told so frequently that this is why he's being murdered. this is his punishment.

    there is proof, not enough.
    but could i have done it and blocked it out? my EVIL hand wears a wedding band called GOOD.
    is it hiding it's true self?

    did he do it?
    i think it's all interpretation.

    in all i think this is internal conflict for him: what is the truth?

    nick cave is brilliant.
    irate hippi chicon April 06, 2003   Link
  • +1
    General Comment"My kill-hand is called E.V.I.L.
    Wears a wedding band that's G.O.O.D.
    Tis a long-suffering shackle
    Collaring all that rebel blood"

    "Kill-hand" may be a poker reference - under some rulesets in which the game is short but the stakes are high - but here I think it's simply a colourful name for his right hand, the one which would wield a weapon.

    The E.V.I.L. / G.O.O.D. probably refers to knuckle tattoos, often sported by prisoners. That he's on death row would indicate he's had these applied during a former stretch in general population.

    Wedding band would mean good and evil are inextricably linked, and the good balances the evil & somehow restrains it from getting (excuse the pun) out of hand. The lines following would support this idea.
    ArtFinkon January 30, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentForget about the context for a moment. The song is about fear of death and the uncertainty surrounding the gray areas of truth and morality that all of us wrestle with, not just those on death row. "Am I a good person? Did I live a good life?"
    jpd69on September 16, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is one of Nick's many songs built around a story, although this one isn't as immediately clear as some of his others.

    It concerns a killer, though exactly what he did isn't explained. He's convicted and sentenced to death, all the while claiming he didn't do it. While on Death Row, he discovers Christianity, and in his final few moments before dying, he confesses (to himself, and to God) that he is guilty of it after all. The Mercy Seat of the title is a reference to the throne of God, and also to the electric chair.
    ButterflyCollectoron February 10, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General Commentwell, i agree with that interpretation, but not wholly.

    i think that in the last few moments of his life he doesn't know whether he's innocent or not.

    if he did it, he's told himself so strongly that he was innocent, that it's hard to accept guilt.

    and if he didn't, he's been told so frequently that this is why he's being murdered. this is his punishment.

    there is proof, not enough.
    but could i have done it and blocked it out? my EVIL hand wears a wedding band called GOOD.
    is it hiding it's true self?

    did he do it?
    i think it's all interpretation.

    in all i think this is internal conflict for him: what is the truth?

    nick cave is brilliant.
    irate hippi chicon April 06, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General Commentgah. bump.
    irate hippi chicon April 09, 2003   Link
  • 0
    General CommentA great nick cave song, but actually a better cover by Johnny Cash?

    Yes, believe it. Although he mixes up the chorus a little, Johnny does a less creepy version.
    sakeboxon April 11, 2003   Link

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