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When the Carter Family sings, their achingly beautiful songs seem to contain endless human cries from endless origins. Here we find human cries ranging from an anonymous and threatening command from further down the line, the driver’s steadfast and reckless cry of love for the engine 143, the doctor’s cry for the driver’s quick death, his mother cry that he use caution, and – only when we see from the blood on the tracks and his eyes scalded shut – is there the final or ultimate cry to return to God.
I don’t know if R.E.M. meant to reference “Engine 143,” or some of its many similar variations like “The Wreck of Old ’97,” but I find the link undeniable. Here we are immersed in the setting and can feel the cry of the engine, the cry of the tracks, the cry of the country, the cry of the destination, the cry of determination, the cry of exhaustion, the cry of ultimate human longing, and the lingering cry of weary persistence. However, unlike in the Carter Family’s song, here there is no narrative arch; here we find ourselves suspended in this state and – besides in our minds – forever removed from the destination.