‘At The Mercy’ was one that I wrote on a day off in LA. Sometimes when you get into recording an album, you start to sort of get a feel of what you and the producer are going for and what kind of a new song might fit with what you’ve already recorded. So this one was just made up like on the Sunday when I was having the weekend off. We’d worked all week. So on the Sunday I just sort of thought ‘Oh I’d like to take this in tomorrow,’ and have a new completely new thing that he hadn’t heard, that I hadn’t heard. Just very, very fresh. So I was just sort of messing around on the piano and I just got a couple of chords that I liked, slightly darker chords than I might normally have. And this phrase just kept sort of coming.
A lot of people do this, when they’re writing, they just let anything happen, so that it can be ‘Scrambled eggs, baby o var, baby’s legs, oh no ver, man of here, man of fire,’ and you just suddenly go ‘Ooh, man of fire – that could be a direction,’ you know. And with me it just came ‘At the mercy, at the mercy’. At the mercy of what? At the mercy of a busy road. At the mercy of a busy road and I didn’t really attach any significance to it but one of the things that I like about my songs when I’ve written them is you can attach very specific significances to them.
I was talking to Heather about that particular one and she said ‘Whoa! For me at the mercy of a busy road.’ Remember she lost her leg in an accident. You know that’s very appropriate. So that’s the kind of thing I was thinking of that how life can throw you a curveball, suddenly you’re going along and then suddenly ‘Oh no!’ and it’s a similar scene to ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’. Only that was like a comedy dark black comedy based on that idea: you never know what’s round the corner kind of thing.
So ‘At The Mercy’ was that, and I took it in to Nigel the next day and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he said, ‘Oh great, great.’ It became his favourite, you know. So we just worked on it and that was it. It was basically that it was finding a couple of chords that were kind of dark enough to get this sort of message that life can throw you curve balls and what do we do about it? Oh well, I don’t know, just keep on resolute, whatever you do.
Chaos And Creation In The Backyard interview, July 2005
It was a case of just letting it come into me. I still don’t know what I was trying to get at. But I don’t mind that in a song. I like that because the audience can decide. ‘We can watch the universe explode.’ It means everything without meaning anything. You know what it means. ‘At the mercy of a busy day…’ I like to be on the cusp of meaning. I’m not quite sure what it means, but I really know what it means. That’s an interesting area.
Conversations with McCartney, Paul Du Noyer
The song was recorded in April 2004, a year before the bulk of the Chaos And Creation album sessions. ‘At The Mercy’, as well as ‘A Certain Softness’ and the b-sides ‘Growing Up Falling Down’ and ‘I Want You To Fly’, were recorded with guitarist Jason Falkner.
The initial album sessions with producer Nigel Godrich were not wholly successful, with McCartney resisting Godrich’s attempts to move the singer outside his comfort zone. Godrich’s aim was to break the songwriting and recording routine in which he felt McCartney had become stuck, but his often blunt appraisals caused some tension between the two.
The third session, he came back and played me a song, and I was like, ‘Fucking hell, that’s so much better.’ That was ‘At The Mercy’. He said, ‘I think I’m remembering how to do this!’ Maybe he was expressing the concept of having to better what he’s doing because someone was going to look at him and say, ‘Not sure,’ rather than just blindly taking everything that he proffers.