What is the name for the voice of many Mountain Goats songs?
August 29, 2016 10:40 PM   Subscribe

John Darnielle often uses a present tense voice in his songs, sometimes first person, sometimes second person. Additionally, the subject is omitted. What's this voice called? Are there other songwriters who use it often?

Some examples (Youtube links):
For Charles Bronson "Catch a lucky break / try to make it last."
Heel Turn 2 (Particularly: "Be an upstanding man about town" and "Drift down into the new, dark light")
The Ballad of Bull Ramos "Drive a great big truck / when I'm old, when I'm old."

It's definitely a device he seems to use more lately. I can't find as many examples on older albums.
posted by JoeBlubaugh to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
When the unspoken subject is "you," it's the imperative mood.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:30 PM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Where it's not the imperative, it's often an example of pronoun-dropping rather than a distinct voice or mood in its own right.
posted by Ted Maul at 1:05 AM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Ted Maul is right. In "Heel Turn 2" and "The Ballad of Bull Ramos," the song as a whole is in the first person, and he's just dropping the pronoun is a specific place. You could think of it like "[I'm gonna] get a great big truck when I'm old." In "Hell Turn 2," you can see pretty easily that the whole song is in the first person. The one use of "you" is the type of "you" that means "one," as in "a person."
Get stomped like a snake
Lie down in the dirt
Cling to my convictions
Even when I get hurt
Be an upstanding well-loved man about town
In your child’s mind that's how it goes down

But I tried
The losing side
I don't want to die in here
I don't want to die in here
In "Charles Bronson" and "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 2" the song is actually in the second person, addressing not a generic "you," so not imperative in that way, but a second-person limited to a specific character.
posted by not that girl at 5:23 AM on August 30, 2016

You can see a similar use of the past tense in "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" (from Heretic Pride):

Woke up afraid of my own shadow--
Like, genuinely afraid--
Headed to the pawn shop
To buy myself a switchblade...

I think he does it either for metrical reasons (hahahaha), to convey a sense of inarticulateness/terseness on the part of the narrator, or sometimes to blur the distinction between the indicative and the imperative (is the narrator describing events or exhorting himself?). Like in Romans 10:9 (Life of the World to Come):

Wake and rise and face the day and try to stop the day from staring back at me
Busy hours for joyful hearts and later maybe head out to the pharmacy

posted by praemunire at 8:40 AM on August 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think the term historical present describes what he's doing.

"whether some event mentioned in the story is past, present, or, future changes as the story progresses; the entire plot description is presented as if the story's now is a continuous present."

And I think that you're right that it's a relatively new thing for him. If you look back at some of the songs on All Hail West Texas like The Fall of the Star High School Running Back or Jenny you can see the use of past tense where he'd probably use present now.
posted by MsMolly at 9:29 PM on August 30, 2016

Response by poster: I noticed a few uses of this on Get Lonely this morning, too, so not entirely new.
posted by JoeBlubaugh at 9:49 AM on September 4, 2016

Response by poster: I don't think it's as straightforward as dropping pronouns - I think Lovecraft in Brooklyn doesn't have much of the mood I'm thinking of. It's almost like first person imperative, as though the events being narrated are also commanded by either the order of the characters life, or their own perverse will.
posted by JoeBlubaugh at 9:53 AM on September 4, 2016

« Older Where to find a great men's leather jacket in Los...   |   Penalties for Smogging California? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.