63. R.E.M. - Nightswimming

When you talk to people who are big music fans, there are always debate of X vs. Y. Beatles or Rolling Stones? David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar? Keytar or tamborine (the lamest musical accompaniment ever)? And for my generation, there's the much less publicized U2 or R.E.M.? Much like the the Beatles/Stones question, it's an exclusionary preference. You may like both, but you can really only love one. It's a Coke/Pepsi thing. You're either in one camp or the other. For me, I'm a U2 guy*. Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate the talent of R.E.M., but their music doesn't speak to me in the way that it does to people who love R.E.M. I'm not exactly sure why, but that's just how I'm wired.

So that's why "Nightswimming" is the only R.E.M. song on my list and I haven't even gotten to the first of my U2 entries (yes, there are more than one). I've listened to dozens of R.E.M. songs and "Nightswimming" is the one that speaks to me the most. I realize that those in the R.E.M. camp are already ticking off fingers of other R.E.M. songs that are better than this one and should be much higher on any Top 100 list. "Everybody Hurts," "The One I Love," "Man in the Moon," "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," "Losing My Religion." And those are just some of their big hits and even a Grammy winner. So who am I to argue with critics and the Grammys? My response: Milli Vanilli as Best New Artist of 1990 and the critical acclaim lavished over Bob Dylan's voice. So "Nightswimming" it is. Enough prologue, let's talk about this great song.

The piano opening, hell, all of the piano in this song is just amazing. It reminds me of Michaelangelo. The pure genius of his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The stunning splendor of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. But Michaelangelo always thought of himself as a sculptor. Mike Mills is R.E.M.'s bassist. He just plays the keyboards when the songs call for it. But in "Nightswimming," the piano is the song. Musically, without this brilliant piano line, there wouldn't be much to it, or anything to it. I'm not entirely sure what guitarist Peter Buck does during this song, and that's a shame, because he's a brilliant guitarist. But being the ultimate team player, he sits to the side on this one and lets his bandmates shine. To be honest, even with me being such a big U2 honk, I've never seen The Edge take a break like this.

The song actually starts with the common musical warm up that you'd hear an orchestra do, signaling that this isn't going to be your typical rock song, or even R.E.M. song. Mills plays it like a concerto, and there are punctuations of strings throughout the song that add a welcome richness to the piano. R.E.M. isn't so pretentious to compare their work to that of the orchestral masters, but they don't mind playing in their pond occasionally.

Michael Stipe has a unique vocal style and it shows again on "Nightswimming." When he sings the opening line, the way his voice cracks on the word deserves is vintage Stipe. His phrasing as he sings is also so atypical in a rock band. He'll reach the end of a line and blend it in with the beginning of the next line, much like hip-hop artists often do. The vocal melody echoes the piano in its repetition. Some might think that it's lazy to repeat a single melody repeatedly in a song, but in this song, with the subject of the lyrics especially, it works really well.

Lyrically, the nightswimming that Stipe is singing about is the skinny-dipping days of the summer of our youth. Not just in the actual season of summer, but in the prime of our youth, before real life and the obligations and stresses of being a grown up invaded all of our lives. There's a fond remembrance of the past but also the melancholy of the knowledge that those precious moments can't be recaptured.

Nightswimming, remembering that night.
September's coming soon.
I'm pining for the moon.
And what if there were two
Side by side in orbit
Around the fairest sun?

The line "September's coming soon" really speaks to me. The knowledge that the great times that you're having aren't going to last forever. We know we need to make the most of the time that we have and there are occasions in our life when we know we've squandered those opportunities.

The photograph reflects,
every streetlight a reminder.

Lyrics as poetry is overused too much. Just because songs are written in verse, they may technically be poetic, but it doesn't make them poetry. They lyrics that Michael Stipe wrote for "Nightswimming," however, definitely qualify as poetry. The thing I like about good poetry is that part of the poem immediately speaks to you, but other parts take multiple rereads to get to the marrow. The lyrics of this song read as an ode to summers past, and the seemingly contradictory pining for the innocence those "illegal" skinny dips shows that the past is as we remember it, not as it happened.

The more I write about this song, the more I realize that I need to listen to more R.E.M.. There's a uniqueness to their music that deserves more of my attention and me, the lyrical ignorer, needs to give Michael Stipe's poetry some more attention. That's what great music is supposed to do. It's supposed to inspire you. "Nightswimming" has inspired me to pay more attention to a band that I thought I just wasn't that into.

And I'm looking forward to it.

Once again the official video won't let me embed here, but this is the link. And I have to apologize for the commercial that you'll have to watch.


If you want to stay on my page, click on this person's video that is simply the song with the lyrics on the screen.

*I couldn't put this in the body of my post, because it has about as much to do with my argument as the price of tea in China, but how come it's not an U2 guy? Every other vowel that starts a word gets the an before it. U just gets stiffed. Not completely, but just way too much. I even stiffed it again with "a unique vocal style." I was a journalism major in college and I guess I should probably know the answer to this, but I just wanted to share my confusion with you all.
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