As I’ve mentioned before: As far as I go, no singer/songwriter better explores the theme of religion or better employs religious imagery than Nick Cave. Very few people write either religious music or music about religion that avoids either preaching on its behalf or railing against it. Nick Cave is liberated from any creedal loyalty but he’s obviously steeped enough in religious symbols, archetypes, and psychology to naturally and masterfully communicate genuine feelings and ideas through these means in a way that’s really rare in our contemporary era of fundamentalism, platitude religious liberalism, and general secularism.
His art breathes fresh life into worn out religious categories like I don’t see anyone else doing. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the wealth of critical or satirical send ups of religion and the quantities of art that provide socio-political commentary on it (though often these themes are rather predictable—however valuable), there are just few contemporary artists I run across in film or music who are fluent in putting their own feelings and ideas into religious forms in ways that express a genuinely original and personal perspective. We’re not living in an era of Dantes and Miltons by any stretch. Dogmatism and anti-dogmatism seem almost to have a monopoly on religion in art.
And, frankly, one of the irritations I have with religion wherever it dominates is that it threatens to shrink up the range of symbols, metaphors, and myths that people are willing to think and create within. There is more to life than even the most evocative Christian symbols effectively capture and I’d argue there are much better outlooks on the world than the Christian mythos offers us. But when Leonard Cohen pens a “Hallelujah” or when Johnny Cash sings Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat,” the old worn out, dogmatized, philosophically dubious symbols so ubiquitously entrenched in our culture’s psyche are liberated with fresh power to convey something that actually motivates evocative spiritual expression again rather than suffocating all hope of real spirit under blankets of superstition, preaching, pomposity, cliche, and/or superciliousness.
This particular Nick Cave song is one of my favorites. It plays like a great character study wherein the character is a whole town rather than a single person. The song’s tone and Cave’s ironic delivery of it are exquisitely calibrated. His tongue is firmly in his cheek but his eye is straight on reality. His critique is clear and assured with no need for the kind of angry volume that would drown out nuance by merely shouting down straw men. Instead, the satire is slyly and specifically sketched at every turn, overtly skipping some cliches to avoid cartoonish dualisms while comically exaggerating other cliches to poke fun at cartoonish dualisms. And in the end, the song does not simply satirizes but works because there is some level of emotional connection that Cave finds with this small town of proudly modest people proud of their superficial progressiveness that sits side by side with a nasty regressiveness. For 5 and a half minutes, Cave really sells small Palin-town USA and its religious sensibility as though he belongs to it even as it’s also abundantly clear that he does not.