Strangers in a Car (30 Days of Marc Cohn — Day 16)

Strangers in a Car
Marc Cohn

Now we reach the final song of the “car trilogy” (after “Listening to Levon” and “Silver Thunderbird“).  It certainly wasn’t planned to make automobiles the pivot point of my 30-day exploration of Marc Cohn, but it’s worked out nicely.  “Listening to Levon” is Cohn thinking back about a relationship about to end in a car; “Strangers in a Car” might well be that same encounter about to happen.

There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street
Acts like he knows who you are
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car
Might be the one they told you about

This is an unusual second-person song.  We assume that this is not literal truth — that the narrator isn’t watching someone get into a car with someone they don’t know.  The strangers are more metaphorical, of the “Does anybody ever really know anybody?” type.  The driver acts like he knows who she is — he should know.  Indeed, the action is casually intimate:  A car pulls up, a boyfriend gestures for his girlfriend to hop in.  The question is so wonderfully ambiguous.  It could be a friendly welcome, but it seems to contain just the hint of menace.  The driver is forcing her hand, leading her to a choice she might not be ready to make — elsewise, why would she have been hesitating once the car pulls up?  It’s probably no coincidence that, whenever I find myself humming this song, I think the line is “Might be the one they warned you about” (which carries a darker connotation than the actual line).

Well you never were one for cautiousness
You open the door
He gives you a tender kiss
And you can’t even hear them no more

I’ve always heard the line as “Can’t even hear him no more”, though admittedly it’s hard to pick out from the vocals. Although the lyric as found online links up to the “All the voices of choices”, I prefer my (mis)-hearing. It underlines the gulf between the driver and his passenger. It’s an almost-cliche moment in a dying relationship, when both parties are going through the motions but aren’t really invested.

All the voices of choices
Now only one road remains
And strangers in a car
Two hearts
Two souls
Tonight
Two lanes

I absolutely love this sequence.  Things escalate so smoothy and so naturally.  Now it’s not just the driver whom she can’t hear.  She’s lost the voices of her inner angels, the whisper telling her it can be better, or at least, what it all means.  All her options have come down to the choice she’s made before getting into the car, and now she’s just along for the ride.  The repetition of twoness divides them and makes them separate.  And of course, on a two-lane road, all traffic is headed in different directions.

You don’t know where you’re goin’
You don’t know what you’re doin’
Hell it might be the highway to heaven
And it might be the road to ruin

The theme of dichotomy remains, all the futures laid out bare, but the fact of choice mocked:  She doesn’t know where she’s headed, she doesn’t know what she’ll find there.  All she has left is the ride, and when it ends, much ends with it.

But this is a song
For strangers in a car
Baby maybe that’s all
We really are

This has always struck me as full of the odd hope and wistful resignation that runs through many of Cohn’s songs.  It’s as if he acknowledges the ending on the way but he absolves her of it.  The song isn’t about the destination; it’s about the ride.

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