It’s easy to note with the benefit of hindsight, but considering the sequence of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds albums from The Firstborn Is Dead (1985) to Your Funeral…My Trial (1986), it seems obvious that the band was on a roll. Even their covers album (1986’s Kicking Against the Pricks) showed that any song that was sent through their creative filter came out the other side infinitely more massive and fascinating for it. Yet even those who were seriously following the Bad Seeds and noting the trajectory of their artistic growth could not have seen “The Mercy Seat” coming. Tender Prey has no shortage of fantastic songs, but it owes the vast majority of its reputation as a classic to its colossal opener. Plenty has been written and said about “The Mercy Seat”. In fact, there’s an entire segment in the Nick Cave documentary, Do You Love Me Like I Love You, featuring talking heads enthusiastically lining up to express gape-mouthed awe at the song’s power (included on the DVD portion of the reissued album).
So the idea of trying to add some new insight to the chorus of admirers strikes me as a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, if I doubt my ability to contribute some fresh, penetrating analysis concerning “The Mercy Seat”, I still can’t resist the impulse to add some appreciation. I’ve listened to it plenty times before the newly reissued Tender Prey came into my possession, and plenty of times since, and the song never loses its power to absolutely floor me. “The Mercy Seat” is one of the most potent, gripping, haunting, devastating, and sinister songs ever recorded; a spiritual brother to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, even if it couldn’t be more aesthetically dissimilar. There, it’s out of my system, mostly.
It’s unfortunate that putting “The Mercy Seat” up front means that an automatic drop in quality must follow. Yet the string of songs that follow “The Mercy Seat” are would-be standouts on any other album. “Up Jumped the Devil”’s macabre cabaret successfully maintains the black cloud hanging over this album with darkly funny imagery about the devil punctuating all of Cave’s wicked acts. “Deanna” is a Badlands-esque tale of a girl corrupted into Cave’s nightmare world of motiveless murder, sung over a raucous boogie. Cave & the Bad Seeds lighten the tension instrumentally, if not thematically, for the lovely ballad “Watching Alice”. Of course, “lovely” is a weird adjective to attach to a song about a man constantly watching a woman through a window, unbeknownst to her. Yet the chord progression is exquisite, and the dusk-on-the-prairie harmonica solo that appears near the end is a beautiful touch. Lovelorn Cave reemerges later in the album on “Slowly Goes the Night”, one of the more straightforward heartache numbers in his catalogue. Yet the sickness and despair that is so consistently present on Tender Prey manages to bleed into “Slowly Goes the Night”, giving this otherwise frank song an air of mystery.
Of course, with this being a reissue, it’s tempting to consider the biographical circumstances surrounding the Bad Seeds when they were recording Tender Prey. As it happens, Cave was going through a particularly intense period of drug addiction, which might explain the almost relentless murkiness of this album. But even through such personal turmoil, Cave & the Bad Seeds easily retained their playful approach to morbid topics. This is Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at their best; literary, substantive, vivid, terrifying, mischievous, perversely compassionate, and above all, like no other band that came before them or since. In a career marked by many highs, Tender Prey may go down as the Bad Seeds’ quintessential malevolent masterpiece. Those wondering if the updated Tender Prey is worth the upgrade should be happy with what they find here, if only for the improved sound quality. Additionally, the extras are a pleasant, if not totally essential, addition. There are acoustic versions of “The Mercy Seat,” “Deanna,” and “City of Refuge,” a typically lecherous b-side (“Girl at the Bottom of My Glass”), and the aforementioned DVD. But again, the proper album is the star of the show.