Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Nightswimming" - R.E.M.

I always feel conflicted towards the end of summer. No matter how hot or long, I'm always loathe to say goodbye to another year's worth of warmth. Even though autumn holds the promise of color and cool, we all know that we're still inevitably a little closer to the dark and cold. R.E.M. captured this feeling perfectly in Automatic For The People's penultimate track, "Nightswimming." Pitchfork recently crowned it the 73rd best song of the 90's (obviously) and it's no wonder, as it shows the band at their money-down best.

"Nightswimming" starts with a brief, Sgt. Pepper's-esque snippet of orchestral warm-up, announcing the song's sonic pretensions before the sweeping, majestic piano comes forward to lift the tune off the ground. As Michael Stipe's nasally yet clear voice kicks in, so do John Paul Jones' strings, all understated and somber minor chords accentuating the ache in singers words backed by a softly ominous oboe. This is the sound of Paul Westerberg's beautifully lo-fi tinkling in "Androgynous" all grown up, but still dealing with the same adolescent issues.

The story seems simple enough - "nightswimming / deserves a quiet night." A couple of indeterminate age (in my mind's eye they somehow always seem to be MY age) hop in their car to take an evening dip late one August night. A late summer moon hangs low in the sky as they remember old times through a faded snapshot on the dashboard. The unspoken awareness of the near-presence of fall echoes what appear to be some inevitable changes in the couples' own lives. They's starting to confront what Michael Stipe called a "kind of an innocence that's either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost."

As the piano chords circle in their stately procession, Stipe moves from poetic sighing to open anxiety. After softly repeating the opening line, his voice stretches to desperation, "I'm not sure all these people understand / it's not like years ago." His need to escape his own reality is clear and gnawing, as he eulogizes both "the fear of getting caught / of recklessness and water" before copping to more raw adolescent insecurity, "they cannot see me naked." By the time he notes sadly that such experiences "go away / replaced by everyday" it's clear what he means. It's a desperate but hopeful attempt to briefly step outside of the season, his age, his life and just lose himself briefly in the warm and inky water of the moment.

Nestled just before "Find The River" at the end of Automatic For The People, "Nightswimming" embodies the album's mixture of hope, resignation and the bittersweet pains of aging. Every year summer's end comes once again, every year we know it's inevitable and every year this song seems a little more relevant as we must work do more and more create our own moments where we can step out of time. It's enough to convince you to grab someone you like, jump into your car and enjoy a sweet summer evening while you still can. And if you happen to have this on the stereo on the way back, so much the better.

Nightswimming - R.E.M.  Buy it.

Nightswimming [R.E.M.] - The Wrens
This acoustic take from Stereogum's hit-and-miss 2007 tribute album Drive XV replaces weepy piano and strings for stark vocals and lush but haunting vocal harmony before taking an interesting left turn, enjoy.


  1. Definitely a great song. I think what you say about anxiety is really perceptive - there's this shift in tone that sinks in. For whatever reason I've also always been more partial to "Find the River" - though the last 3 songs in general on this album are wonderful as a sort of suite.

    My favorite thing about this album though is still the electric guitar cut-in about 1:30 into "Drive."

  2. Yeah, Drive is the perfect opener for that album just in how it brilliantly builds the sense of dread mixed with beauty. They could have gone for the classic rock n' roll slow-build, adding and instrument every verse, but instead they drop in a few strings here, a searing electric guitar line there before pulling back again to the acoustic guitar, never giving you that cathartic release.

    Also, in terms of great moments on Automatic, I've always been partial to the Dr. Seuss line in The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.