“The Mercy Seat” is the song that gets all the attention from Cave’s classic 1988 album “Tender Prey.” While “Seat” is a stunner, “Watching Alice” should be equally acclaimed. It’s quiet and melancholy in comparison to the intense “The Mercy Seat,” but no less disturbing. The lyrics relate to a man watching a female get dressed year after year “in her palace” where he believes she is held captive. It’s clear she has no idea he’s watching her and he keeps saying “It’s so depressing, it’s cruel.” Cave really inhabits this sad, pathetic creature quite well. The song shares DNA with Van Morrison’s “Cyrpus Avenue” and Randy Newman’s “Suzanne,” two other classic stalker ballads.
The title track from Cave’s amazing 1988 album “The Mercy Seat.” The term “mercy seat” does have religious connotations, for which I’ll consult Wikipedia for a more literate translation than I could ever muster:
According to the Bible, the cover or mercy seat (Hebrew: כפורת, Kapporet ; “atonement piece”) was an object which rested upon the Ark of the Covenant, and was connected with the rituals of the Day of Atonement; the term also appears in later Jewish sources, and twice in the New Testament, from where it has significance in Christian Theology.
The English phrase mercy seat is not a literal translation of the Hebrew term kapporeth, which appears in its place in the Masoretic text, nor of the Greek term hilasterion, which takes the same place in the Septuagint but instead is the translation by William Tyndale influenced by the German term Gnadenstuhl, from the same narrative position in the Luther Bible; Gnadenstuhl literally means seat of grace, in the sense of location of grace.
Despite this meaning, the song is sung from the perspective of an inmate on death row who is facing imminent execution in what I imagine is an electric chair. Cave’s version is unremitting in its intensity. However, Cash’s quieter, but still fierce cover from 2000 is damn good. Both versions will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.