Song: "The Mercy Seat"
Album: Tender Prey
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Though every artist has their influences, it is often within the music of those performers who created their style from multiple predecessors where one finds the most unique and intriguing sounds. In reality, it is hard to find any successful artist that pulls their sound from only one source, yet as a musician reveals more of his influences, the sounds they are able to create grow proportionately. Taking this to its extreme, over the past three decades, few artists have shown as much musical diversity and creativity as one finds in the music of Australia's Nick Cave. From his ferocious early years with The Birthday Party to his recent hard-rock brilliance with Grinderman, as the years pass, he seems to defy tradition and get better. Yet it has been his main band, The Bad Seeds, with which he has had the longest tenure and released some of his greatest musical efforts. Clearly masters of hard-rock chaos as much as they are able to work the intricacies of softer arrangements, it is within this setting that Cave has been able to fully explore all of the sides of his personality, and it is also where his wide range of influences blend together in stunning fashion. Due to the superior level of talent within the band, it is nearly impossible to choose a "best" Bad Seeds record or song, yet one cannot deny the amazing change to the bands' sound that occurred with 1988's Tender Prey. With all the parts coming together, there is perhaps no more perfect a representation of the phenomenal talents of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds than their 1988 single, "The Mercy Seat."
The most significant difference between Tender Prey and the previous efforts of The Bad Seeds was the addition of guitarist and keyboard player Rowland Wolf along with ex-Gun Club and Cramps guitarist, Kid Congo Powers. From the onset of the song, the tension builds, with the almost military drum cadence from Thomas Wydler. Swirling around this are the guitars of Wolf and then-Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld, and there is an unsettling chaos that comes from the almost simple progression that the two follow. Seeming to present a rhythmic contrast to the drumming, Mick Harvey pulls double duty, as he plays both piano and bass on "The Mercy Seat," and it this composition that can be argued as the best Cave/Harvey collaboration. Nick Cave himself also plays on the song, as the gothic sounding Hammond organ playing comes from him, and the combined sound of all these instruments conveys an emotion that is unlike anything else ever recorded. The gloom that hangs over the track is undeniable, yet it is spooky and unsettling in a unique way, and it manages to avoid coming off as cliché and is one of the few truly frightening tracks ever recorded. The music perfectly reflects the setting of the song, as it has an almost manic quality, and the manner in which the instruments seem to tear across the track at random turns "The Mercy Seat" into one of the most captivating recordings ever made.
Playing a fantastic compliment to the music, the vocals, whether spoken or sung, bring a similar quality of nervous tension, and the feeling of desperation becomes almost overwhelming. Truth be told, there are few vocalists in history that have shown as much artistic range and personality as one finds in Nick Cave. Showing no limits in terms of emotion or pitch, on "The Mercy Seat," Cave does everything from the mumbled opening to shouting at points on the song, and this captures the complete personality of the character he is describing. It is this sort of raw theatrics that make Nick Cave such a magnetic singer, and yet he is able to do so without ever coming off as "going too far," and on "The Mercy Seat," he becomes impossible to ignore. Working brilliantly within the confines of his character, Cave delivers a chilling tale from the viewpoint of a man walking to meet his fate via an electric chair. Though some argue that the vocals are somewhat lost on the original version due to the wild music swirling around them, one cannot deny that the impact of the song remains intact, and it is lyrics like, "...and anyway I told the truth, and I'm not afraid to die..." that play out like the finest film thriller, as well as force the consideration of the deep philosophical idea of capital punishment being "merciful" on some level.. However, the song grows more intense and sinister as it progresses, with the truth of the crime being revealed at the end, and the way in which Nick Cave plays out this dramatic tale shows both his unmatched talent as a story-teller, as well as his extraordinary vocal talents.
The way in which Nick Cave spins this dark tale immediately brings to mind the songs of one of his biggest influences: Johnny Cash. One cannot argue that in an odd way, "The Mercy Seat" would have fit within the Cash catalog perfectly, and more than a decade after its initial release, Cash in fact put his own spin on the song, releasing it on his American III: Solitary Man album. One also cannot overlook the various live versions that have been released, as it is within these takes on the song that the vocals become more prominent, and the overall intensity of the song becomes more clear. On their B-Sides And Rarities collection, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds also released an acoustic version of "The Mercy Seat," and it is quite interesting to hear all the different interpretations of this song which remains dark like no other recording. The entire band perfectly captures the spirit of the song, as the scattered, nervous energy they convey is nothing short of stunning, and this is a testament to the exceptional level of talent within each member of The Bad Seeds. Capped off by the absolutely magnificent vocal display from Nick Cave, "The Mercy Seat" is in a class all its own, and even the band themselves had trouble ever reaching this height of musical perfection again in their career. Pulling elements from styles as far reaching as country and heavy metal, there is simply nothing ever recorded that can be compared to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' 1988 musical epic, "The Mercy Seat."