If Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ most recent album Ghosteen told us anything, it was that Cave’s songwriting ability has reached unparalleled levels as he continues to fit his relentlessly poignant lyrics effortlessly alongside the music of his bandmates.
For Cave though, songwriting has always been his art form—it just took time to hone his skills. While in his Birthday Party years and into the early Bad Seeds development the lyrics may have conceded priority somewhat to the righteous rock and roll instrumentals, Cave’s deliverance and poetic license has only grown stronger as the years went by.
A pivotal moment, it has to be said, was the release of 1988 album Tender Prey which is opened by the now iconic song ‘Mercy Seat’, a track which has since followed the Bad Seeds around on every tour and signifies a change in impetus for Cave’s songwriting.
“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’,” Cave once said of the song. “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.”
The song, which tells the story of a man about to be executed by the electric chair, sums up Cave’s ability to depict autobiographical tales within his writing while references to religion become yet more prevalent. Widely regarded as some of Cave’s finest work, ‘Mercy Seat’ has lastest the test of time while celebrated by some of the biggest names in the business.
Johnny Cash, one of the best-selling music artists of all time, was working on what was to be his third album in what was being described as his ‘American series’ when Cave’s song was brought to his attention. Released in 2000, American III: Solitary Man approached the theme of the “convicted innocent” and saw Cash cover 14 different songs.
Cash, having heard Cave’s song while learning about executions in Texas, commented: “If a man’s been there 25 years, maybe we should consider whether or not he has become a good human being and do we still want to kill him,” while discussing the debate of capital punishment.
In the below clip, video editor Mark Wright has combined Cash’s cover with his own music video which combines footage from films such as Angels with Dirty Faces, Each Dawn I Die, Brute Force, and I Want to Live!
Cave, undeniably proud of the Cash reference, once said: “It doesn’t matter what anyone says,” in an interview. “Johnny Cash recorded my song.”