Ever since three-quarters of The Beatles decided to take five and let a string quartet back Paul McCartney on “Yesterday,” rock bands have felt the urge to marry some of their more earnest sentiments to instrumentation more typical of classical music. Many artists who go this route do so clumsily, losing their identity in the process of trying on this musical formal wear.
R.E.M. managed to avoid these pitfalls on “Nightswimming.” The song, featured on their wonderful 1992 album Automatic For The People, is hauntingly pretty and yet still contains the air of intriguing mystery so closely associated with the band. The song features only Mike Mills on piano, Michael Stipe on vocals and orchestral instruments arranged by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. (Jones knew this territory well; his mellotron work on Zep’s “The Rain Song” added classical overtones to one of the band’s first ballads.)
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck wasn’t needed on the track, but he recalled the song’s creation in the liner notes to the 2003 compilation In Time. “Being competitive bastards that we are, Mike and I started auditioning chord changes and tunes for Michael,” he said. “Mike had a piano instrumental that he played to Michael. He listened once, nodded his head to hear it again, and on the second pass he sang the lyrics. It was ‘Nightswimming,’ exactly like the record we would record a year later. I was standing in the corner dumbfounded.”
The song’s circular structure, which never resolves into anything like a chorus, evokes the feeling of being trapped in a sweet memory, jibing well with Stipe’s improvisational lyrics. Spurred by a photo on the dashboard of the vehicle he’s driving, the narrator remembers youthful evenings spent near the water, swimming in it, musing on it, watching the moon reflect off it.
Stipe’s stream of consciousness produces some revealing memories. “The fear of getting caught,” he sings. “Of recklessness and water/ They cannot see me naked.” These invigorating moments are contrasted with the routine of his current life: “These things, they go away/ Replaced by everyday.”
Inevitably, the memories widen in scope to reveal a companion with him by the water and his complicated feelings for that person. “You I thought I knew you,” he sings. “You I cannot judge.” The song beautifully sustains a kind of wistful nether region between nostalgia and regret, becoming the aural equivalent of a nighttime drive spent pondering a time gone but not forgotten: “The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder.”
Stipe, in keeping with his reputation, has at times been evasive about the song’s meaning, even claiming once that it was about a night watchman who threatened to sue if he was immortalized in song, hence the title change to “Nightswimming.” He came somewhat clean about the song’s impetus when he wrote about it in the liner notes to the 2011 band retrospective Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011. “There’s a fairly autobiographical narrative to this one, and the part about the windshield really happened,” he recalled.
Combining those potent recollections with Mills’ ingratiating roundabout of a tune and Jones’ sympathetic strings makes for a rock ballad impossible to resist. “Nightswimming” is R.E.M. at its most musically accessible, but Stipe makes sure the song’s lyrical waters still run deep.