On “Nightswimming”, Michael Stipe croons about “Septembers coming soon…”.
A lyric from arguably the most melancholy track off of R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People, which is also debatably one of the most melancholy albums of the past quarter century.
Sure, this song is about a lot of things – even a surface analysis reveals some pretty hefty themes: the loss of innocence, childhood succumbing to adulthood, and fantasy colliding with reality. And maybe some people getting nekkid.
But what is this tune really, on the surface?
That horrible feeling that soon the humid August hothouse weather will be replaced by unbearable cold. That horrible feeling combined with the vague, childlike excitement that accompanies any change of season. A change is a ‘comin, weather (get it??) you like it or not.
There is a paralyzing beauty to R.E.M.’s 1992 studio effort – which was critically acclaimed at the time of its release, and for many years following, as more people discovered everything R.E.M. could be. Typically, I would agree with the statement that “early R.E.M. is the only R.E.M. for me,” because, dang, just take a listen to their 1983 debut – Murmur. Or 1987’s Document; or heck, even 1988’s Green. And Green was the band’s big label debut – and it still shines of the odd-ball, blurry indie rock that makes their early catalog sound more like The Soft Boys – only more lo-fi. Like The Meat Puppets if they weren’t so creepy.
But, I digress – I do not agree that R.E.M.’s early catalog is their only great work simply because of Automatic for the People. Like I mentioned before – paralyzing beauty. Streamlined production that spruces up vague lyrics about life, death, and everything in between.
Sure, “Everybody Hurts” is the one true stinker – skip that one every single time ya play it. Please.
There are so many great references to rock n roll imbedded in the album, too. The title track is a take on “Rock On”, by David Essex – just take a listen to the songs side by side – very similar, no? Those cool, dark vibes, what else is rock n roll? A temptation, something dark and twisty, something that can get you through. Something powerful.
Sure, give “Rock On” too much of a listen and the result is a looootttt of cringing. I don’t even know why. But the embarrassment follows a good listen. Probably the lyrics about “the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen” and something about her wiggling on a move screen.
And the “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” – well, there’s the classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, a song recorded by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in 1939. But that isn’t the version that Stipe and Buckley are referencing. The Tokens had a #1 hit with the tune over two decades later, in 1961.
The nostalgia that is immediately infused into anything that references even these couple of musical oldies is something tangible and rare. Nostalgia that is partially self-delusion, as any nostalgia usually is – the feeling that things “were better back then”, with the irresistible urge to “go back” when that is impossible and even pointless to ponder. Something about the nostalgia emanating from the songs on Automatic feels legitimate. Like the pointless aspect of wanting desperately to go backwards is acknowledged, but the feeling remains.
“Sweetness Follows” is full of practically parental, or even grand-parental advice, about all the little things that can “pull you under”, and how easy it is to get “lost in your little lives”. Something worth lamenting, sure. The battle against the tide of time.
Maybe that is more what “Nightswimming” is about. Fighting that battle but losing, and being perfectly, painfully aware of that loss.