Short Story in a Song — “The Mercy Seat”

I’d already explored the Johnny Cash catalog by the time I heard the album Tender Prey by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Cash songs like “25 Minutes To Go” and “Folsom Prison Blues” were early favorites, but even those criminal tales couldn’t prepare me for the viciousness of Cave’s “The Mercy Seat.” I must have listened to that song a thousand times since then and always come away with a slightly different understanding of the narrator’s take on redemption. Then I heard the Johnny Cash version of “The Mercy Seat” around the turn of the century and everything made sense.

Our narrator is a death row inmate in his final hours. The story is littered with powerful imagery that alternately portrays the electric chair as both the end of his suffering and the throne of God. Religious themes and struggles with morality drive the narrative forward as he constantly asserts his innocence and claims that he’s “not afraid to die.” It isn’t until the last line of the song that he admits he “told a lie,” leaving the listener to weigh the evidence and decide if it’s a confession, or if he’s simply done with all “this measuring of proof.” Powerful stuff and a great sort story.

Read the lyrics for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “The Mercy Seat” HERE.

More “Short Story in a Song” posts:

S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATIONGRIZZLY SEASON and HANG TIME (Rare Bird Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in LA.

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