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Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – Mercy – Song lyrics analysis, meaning and interpretation

Songwriting

Story analysis of the lyrics of the song “Mercy” by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

This song analysis belongs to the PDF Songwriting.

“Mercy” is the 5th track on the 5th studio album Tender Prey (Muter Records, 1988) by the band Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds.

The credits of the song are:

  • Nick Cave – Vocals, Vibes, Harmonica
  • Blixa Bargeld – Slide Guitar, Backing Vocals
  • Mick Harvey – Bass, Backing Vocals
  • Kid Congo Powers – Guitar, Backing Vocals
  • Roland Wolf – Piano
  • Thomas Wydler – Drums
  • Hugo Race – Backing Vocals

Music video

Song lyrics by Nick Cave

I stood in the water
In the middle month of winter
My camel skin was torture
I was in a state of nature

The wind, sir, it was wicked
I was so alone
Just as I predicted
My followers were gone

Chorus 1

And I cried `Mercy’
Have mercy upon me
And I got down on my knees

Verse 2

Thrown into a dungeon
Bread and water was my portion
Faith – my only weapon
To rest the devil’s legion

The speak-hole would slide open
A viper’s voice would plead
A voice thick with innuendo
Syphilis and Greed

Chorus 2

And she cried `Mercy’
Have mercy upon me
And I told her to get down on her knees

Verse 3

In a garden full of roses
My hands were tied behind me
My cousin working miracles
I wondered if he’d find me

A moon had faced toward me
Like a platter made of gold
My death, it almost bored me
So often was it told

Chorus 3

And I cried, mercy
Have mercy on me
I dropped down to my knees
And I cried, mercy
Have mercy on me
And then it pushed me to my knees

Song lyrics analysis and meaning

The song, which lasts 6:22, starts on insisting drumrolls on dramatic piano chords. The guitars, vibes, harmonica, and backing vocals, will augment it later. The instrumental sets up a rather dark, powerful, haunted atmosphere.

Obviously, this launches the Act I of the plot: exposition of the world through the sound atmosphere.

Verse 1

At 0:24, Nick Cave’s voice takes the lead with the lyrics:

I stood in the water
In the middle month of winter

From this first line, we already get told about one “I” that will be the Hero of the song. We will not know much more about the name and identity of this character-narrator.

This completes the exposition. Even with so few information, we already face a strong situation: to stand in the water in the coldest moment of winter does not sound pleasant to anyone. So, from this very beginning, we, in the audience, are lead to empathize with the Hero’s drama, and to feel mercy towards him.

My camel skin was torture
I was in a state of nature

The mention of the camel skin plays as a geographical and cultural indication: where can the Hero be? We will not now, but such an element makes us wonder and imagine a far medieval world.

The term “torture” – and also the plaintive way Nick Cave sings the lyrics – deliver a strong emotional effect on the listener.

The expression “I was in a state of nature” lets us guess: what does it mean? We might think that the Hero is naked – so if we join this information to the fact that the Hero is standing in the freezing water, we feel that the situation is actually even more painful than what we previously thought.

For the moment, there is no expressed goal, but the situation is already tense: nobody would like to be in the position of the Hero, and if we would be, we would want to get out of it: will that be the goal?

The wind, sir, it was wicked
I was so alone
Just as I predicted
My followers were gone

The mention of the wind stimulates our imagination even more and reinforces the impression of physical torture: being naked in water with the winter wind blowing…

The elements “I was so alone” and “My followers were gone” might be interpretated as new indications about the identity of the Hero, and about his past. He was a leader and had followers. What kind of leader, what kind of followers? It is not said, so we can just wonder.

The word “sir” contradicts what we previously thought: no, the narrator does not adress us, but someone else, whose identity we do not know.

Chorus 1

And I cried `Mercy’
Have mercy upon me
And I got down on my knees

This chorus plays the role of the catalyst: from there, we know for sure what the Hero wants: to be… forgiven? released? pardoned? We wonder: for what fault, what crime? The uncertainty, once again, lets us imagine.

Verse 2

Thrown into a dungeon
Bread and water was my portion
Faith – my only weapon
To rest the devil’s legion

Genre: now the plot takes a clearly medieval, fantastic turn.

The Hero begged for mercy: those new lyrics tell us that he was not pardoned, whatever his fault or crime. Thus, it is the beginning of the development, Act II: the Hero’s situation becomes even worse.

The mentions of faith and the devil’s legion, probably confirm that the Hero was a religious leader, the reason why he had some followers?

The speak-hole would slide open
A viper’s voice would plead
A voice thick with innuendo
Syphilis and Greed

No element allows us to identify this new character, neither to tell why this voice addresses the Hero as he is in jail: because he is a religious leader, and the owner of “the voice” was one of his followers? Actually, it is not even possible to say whether this character is actantial or not: does he or she come to help the Hero, or to torture him, or anything else? No.

All those uncertainties build up a climate of dense mystery, that sounds rather fascinating and generate tension: we would like to know.

Chorus 2

And she cried `Mercy’
Have mercy upon me
And I told her to get down on her knees

It is nearly the same lyrics than in the first chorus, but the roles are inverted: the Hero now addresses this “she” – the owner of the viper’s voice? It is like he can now find back his authority of religious leader and give commands again. But anyway, we can not do better than formulate assumptions.

During around one minute speechless, the music develops crescendo and reaches a summit, after what it calms down and we are back to the lyrics.

The absence of words is not an absence of action or meaning: this purely instrumental moment gives us time to feel the drama that is going on, and perhaps to think about the elements of the story: who, where, why…? Furthermore, the intensity of the music frees the latent dramatic forces and the unresolved tension.

Verse 3

In a garden full of roses
My hands were tied behind me

Here, we have an effect of chronology: the time spent during the previous instrumental part allowed the songwriter to make a strong ellipsis from one moment of the plot to another, later.

The fact that the Hero’s hands are tied, lets us guess that it is probably the time for his execution. Yet, it is not possible to assert it for sure because the lyrics do not give us enough information. Again, this lack of information contributes to force us to pay attention to each detail, and to try and rebuild all that is missing. Our imagination is invited to fill the gaps.

My cousin working miracles
I wondered if he’d find me

This time it is clear: this new character – the cousin – is a Helper. It is not sure whether he will be able to deliver some help or not, but it is clear that he aims at it – at least, according to the narrator…

In case the hypothesis of an imminent execution is true, then we have here a frequent style figure in storytelling: a time lock, that is: a trick to rise tension up, by limiting the time available to perform an action. In other words: if the cousin does not find the Hero very, very soon, then it will be too late anyway.

A moon had faced toward me
Like a platter made of gold

This descriptive element, shows that the exposition can be a continuous process.

The stylistic effect “a moon” instead of “the moon”, confirms we are in a fantastic register, in a world that is likely to have several moons.

My death, it almost bored me
So often was it told

Those beautiful verses stand as an enigma that can not be solved: who was telling the Hero’s death so often? The people surrounding him perhaps? Some hostile crowd?

Chorus 3

And I cried, mercy
Have mercy on me
I dropped down to my knees
And I cried, mercy
Have mercy on me
And then it pushed me to my knees

Those last lyrics repeat the dramatic question, but in vain. Until the last seconds of the track, we are still expecting answers, that will finally never come:

Who is the Hero?

Who locks him in jail?

Who comes to visit him and speaks to him through the speak-hole?

Will the cousin find him on time?

Will the Hero be executed?

None of those questions can be answered with precision. Is it a problem? It seems not: all the pleasure of the song lays in its deep, fascinating, foggy mystery.

Commentary

Themes

A modern revival of older times through rock music, “Mercy” ‘s lyrics reminds us of medieval or medieval-inspired literature – with many elements connotated with a dark romanticism: the middle of winter, the camel skin, the devil’s legions, the dungeon, bread and water, the viper, the moon, the execution…

Apart from this aspect, we can wonder about the deep meaning of the song. Several elements can let us think the Hero has been partly inspired by the character of Jesus-Christ:

The Hero stood in the water. Jesus walked on water.

The camel skin necessarily comes from a region were camels can be found. It’s the case of Jesus’ Judea.

“As I predicted, my followers were gone”: that’s what Jesus says to his apostoles Johann in the New Testament, Jesus predicts that Johann will pretend not to know him. Jesus also knew that one of his disciples (Judas) would betray him. And when Jesus was arrested, his followers went away and stayed hidden until the Resurrection.

Faith seen as a weapon: that is what Jesus said, faith can move mountains. Jesus fought against the merchants of the Temple, using his faith as a weapon.

A garden full of roses: it could make us think of the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was used to gather with his disciples and where they prayed, the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Luke 22:43–44, Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane was so deep that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
“My cousin was working miracles”: the mention of miracles also makes think of Jesus. His cousin the Baptist was doing miracles.

We do not mean to assert that Nick Cave makes christian propaganda, but that he probably took inspiration from christian culture to build a character impregnated with sacred, and whose story leads him from suffering to death, through betrayal (the viper). It is often a good idea to base one’s works on widely spread elements of culture. The fact that the song lays on those christian foundations, while anonymizing and blurring them, helps it have a deeper impact over the western audience who, christian or not, shares this culture at least as a reference.

Actantial roles

A few things are remarkable in this song when it is about actantial roles.

Firstly, the character makes a strange, rare kind of Hero. Usually, and by definition, a Hero is active: motivated, he tries to achieve a goal. Here, the Hero is passive nearly all along, and always a victim: he “stands”, he is alone, he is thrown into a dungeon, he is visited, he is tied up… The only active verbs attributed to him, are to command the mysterious visitor to beg for mercy, or to cry “mercy” himself.

And secondly, the Antagonist, here, stays totally anonymous, unknown, unrevealed. We will have absolutely no hint about who this enemy is, or about his motivations.

In general, it is not recommended to have a passive Hero and an unidentifyable Antagonist, but in the case of this song, it works, rather… miraculously.

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