Nightswimming

Album: Automatic For the People (1992)
Charted: 27

Songfacts®:

  • This nostalgic song revisits an idyllic childhood memory of the band when they would go skinny dipping in Athens, Georgia. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck explained: "We used to sneak on this guy's property in Athens and go swimming in this water hole. It'd be great: 30 of us all running around naked. It was before AIDS, and whatever happened happened."
  • R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills wrote this song and played piano on the track. They recorded the song at Criteria Studios in Miami, which is where Derek And The Dominos recorded. The piano Mills played was the same one Bobby Whitlock and Jim Gordon used to play the famous ending on "Layla."
  • The lyrics were written before R.E.M. recorded their 1991 album, Out of Time. They couldn't find any good music for it until after the album was released.
  • In the video, directed by Jem A. Cohen, the song fades out for about a minute-and-a-half. All that can be heard are grasshoppers and other night noises. Then the music resumes.
  • The album title comes from a soul food diner in Athens, Georgia, where the waiters answer "automatic" after you order. Michael Stipe loves diners and once opened a vegetarian diner of his own.
  • This was the only R.E.M. song where the lyrics were written before the music, inspiring some healthy competition between Mike Mills and Peter Buck. Buck recalls in the liner notes for In Time: "Being competitive bastards that we are, Mike and I started auditioning chord changes and tunes for Michael. The two tunes of mine that Michael rejected eventually became 'Drive' and 'Try Not To Breathe.' 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."
  • "There's a fairly autobiographical narrative to this one, and the part about the windshield really happened," Michael Stipe wrote in the liner notes for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, referring to the lyrics "The photograph on the dashboard taken years ago, turned around backwards so the windshield shows." He said: "That's exactly how I saw it, I'm pretty sure it was a pickup truck. I know Jem Cohen loves that line, and he made the most incredible film as a video for this song."
  • Mike Mills played this in concert with Robert McDuffle and the students at Mercer University's McDuffle Center for Strings. "I think one of my favorite parts is the orchestra tuning up in the beginning," he noted in Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage, 1982-2011.

Comments: 33

  • Adam from York, PaI'm just gonna say one thing. Between the greatest hits album my dad bought in like 2003 and the document album I bought as a Christmas gift for him in 2010, not a single song overlaps and I love almost every song from both albums, between the two you have nightswimming, the one i love, losing my religion, firehouse, orange crush, its the end of the world as we know it and i feel fine, oddfellows151, daysleeper, exhuming mccarthey, and a whole list of others. I am proud to say that out of approximately 30 r.e.m. songs i have heard in my life, i like 28 of them, (can't stand ebow the letter or at my most beautiful though). Nightswimming is a good song, even a great song. That being said, I feel R.E.M. has written too many brilliantly inspired songs to pick any one of them as the best. You'd need to list you're top ten R.E.M. songs if y0u wanted even twenty-five percent of the population to agree with you
  • Brad from A City, KyThe way this album's sequenced it's like just when you thought a more beautiful, moving, and emotionally gut wrenching and powerful song than "Nightswimming" could possibly be written, "Find the River" kicks in. Talk about a way to close a record! Combined with " Man on the Moon", the three songs that end the album Automatic for the People - "Man on the Moon", "Nightswimming", and "Find the River" form the greatest song trilogy ever made, with each song feeding off the emotional power of the last so by the time there's nothing left but silence, you are left crying in a daze, having finally discovered the true purpose of existence in life. If you don't own this record, I feel truly sympathetic towards you.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaI don't think that last fact is true-- Wasn't It's The End Of The World As We Know It written in a similar fashion.
  • Henry from Bath, United Kingdomi love this song, ive just had the best summer of my life and its over now, all i have left are my memories of the great times me and my mates had, cos ive now moved away.
    this song gives me good memories of the stpid stuff we got up to, and ill never forget it
  • Jeff from Wallingford, CtI think this song is about Michael lamenting about the lost innocence that comes with being a rock star. He wants those carefree days of youth and anonymity back, because he feels like he's helpless to the prying eye of the world. The line: "They cannot see me naked" shows that he feels unprotected and embarrassed by fame.
    Also:
    "You, I thought I knew you
    You, I cannot judge
    You, I thought you knew me
    This one laughing quietly
    underneath my breath"
    shows that he knows he can't trust many people, no matter how well he thinks he knows them, because one of his trusted, oldest friends, might turn on him in a grasp for their own attention.
    But the song is haunting. One of my favorite songs.
  • Caryl from Argyll, United KingdomI hadn't played Automatic for the People in years, then I heard a fragment of Nightswimming on the radio yesterday and couldn't get it out of my head, I had to play it today and Google it. It's so beautiful and melancholy. The lyrics could be about so many things. Lost innocence? Lost youth? Maybe a juvenile gay flirtation in the school holidays? some of the comments here are indeed "spot on" Whatever it's about, it always makes me feel nostalgic and a little sad.
  • Mikel from Bilbao, SpainOne of the powers of this song is suggestion. Lyrics are so "open" for different interpretations that made us dream about different theories and ideas, and that is enormously powerful. Anyway, I think the main theme in the song is the change (in North hemisphery) from August-summer to September-autumn (and return to school, return to job, return from holidays, ta, ta, ta) and so many deep feelings related to that change.
  • Tish from Durban, Jo'burg, South AfricaThis song strikes a chord with everyone because even though it is based on actual events, it is quite metaphorical, so everyone relates to it in their own way. It talks about what was, what is, what could be. It is sad, hopeful, nostalgic and wise.
  • Steve from Bowmanville, OnLove the song. I really think it's more about gay experiences though... "Fear of getting caught". and growing tolerence to homosexuality "it's not like years ago".
    One of those songs that paints a picture in your mind when you here it...
  • John from Kents Store, Vait really is about swimming at night and that was a real event recalled in the present. what is unreal for the singer is the present--the singer cannot connect even with one whom he once knew intimately ("and you i thought i knew you"). "i'm not sure all these people understand..." : with this line the singer anticipates his recollection ("the fear of getting caught, the recklessness of water," etc.) being filtered through today's alienating lens, stripped of its's poetry, and so misunderstood. the line about forgetting the shirt may be symbolic but it also grounds the lyrics in a recollected actual event which the singer presents to himself as evidence nightswimmiing was a real experience--whose memory he will insist on preserving. one thing for sure, the singer isn't optimistic about nightswimming receiving again the quiet night it deserves.
    john, kents store, va
  • Ryan from Los Angeles, CaNightswimming is seeing the reflective reality
    and realizing the reflection is the reality
    and what you thought was the real image is an illusion. You are now naked, swimming in the dark, and you are not welcomed there. So there is negative energy or "noise" trying to get at you while you out treading new ground. The shirt is the former reality left behind while you wade into unknown.
  • Mark from Lincoln, EnglandThe song is also about aids. references to AIDS in it .

    its not like years ago.The fear of getting caught....listen to the song
  • John from Kents Store, VaPerhaps the best pop song written. With its simple vocabulary and spare lyrics, its reach is modest but its grasp is infinite. Comments of Doroshow and Brian of Austin are, as the Brits say, "spot on." But in the final analysis it is impossible to boil the lyrics down to a single vision or thought. Never in pop music have so few words captured such vivid yet elusive imagery. The song anticipates and bemoans alienation in our "whatever" age ("And you, I thought i knew you.") The song is also the Twenty-first century version of Poussin's "Et in arcadia ego." That is, the age of youthful innocence in a sympathetic environment is recalled but over. It is, to use an overused word, an awesome song.
  • Vincent from Mpls, MnThe vinyl version is considerably different, with distorted piano and diminished strings. Anyone know the story on this?
  • Samuel from South Gate, CaBeautiful Song and one of the best written ever the piano in this song inspired me to play ,but what has been bothering me is the intro it sounds so famliar and i would like to know who plays this or what song it is, or what kind of orchetra performs this im so obsessed with that intro
  • Nicole from Nottellin, OrThis is one of those songs that I wish I could mute the lyrics on, not necessarily because the singing is bad, but the piano is so good. I could listen to the piano playing this song all day long.
  • Russell from CaSorry, that would be Find the River, the next song. Sorry for the double post.
  • Russell from CaA nice sounding song, and to my ear, sounds an awful lot like Wendell Gee.
  • Johnny from Rockland, Mathis is a beautiful song.no doubt about that. it is my 3rd favorite REM song (behind Imitation of Life and Losing my Religion). REM is one of my favorite bands obvoiusly because of their music and also the fact that they have been around so long and put forth a lot of commitment and effort in their works.
  • Matthew Doroshow from Philadelphia, PaThis song makes me think of the years in which you leave being a kid and turn into an adult with responsibility. It is one of my favorite REM songs, and belongs on the best album of the 1990's.
  • Brian from Austin, TxI think this song is about loss. Loss of friendship due to the passage of time and the betrayal that sometimes accompanies it. One can imagine that Stipe and other members of the band had close friends that could not handle their fame and turned on them. Who knows? What a song!
  • Mandy from Smalltown, NyI can at the very least, identify with Jon's heartfelt (if a bit exaggerated) declaration. I absolutely love that image of the picture on the dashboard; it always makes me think of Stipe in his car, on the highway, in the dark, and the streetlights pass over and he sees that image in the window- it's so striking and heartfelt. It makes me want to love someone that much.
  • Craig from Madison, WiThis song hurts in a good way every time I hear it. It may not be their best REM song, but it's the best song by REM. That may sound odd, but it seems to stand alone from the rest of their work, possibly because there's not the usual trace of jangly country and western, but it seems to be more than that. A wonderful climax to an album that seems to be obsessed with aging and death.
  • Jon-michael from Augusta, Georgia, Gai love this song i'ts very lovely, has a nice melody, one of my faves from them.!
  • Rob from Santa Monica, CaThe little orchestra tune-up at the beginning of the song is awesome. One of my top 3 slow REM songs, along with So. (NOT SOUTHERN) Central Rain and Daysleeper.
  • Josh from Pontypridd, Walesi want to go nightswimming. jon w, im ashamed to say i did cry. it makes me think of a guy who lost someone, like a girlfriend or parent or something,and still goes to remember them. i show all my friends and they all love. the only thing is, it wrecks a mood. everyone goes all reflective and it makes fun a physical impossibility. thanks for reading my blathering. hc
  • Eroc from Anniston, AlThis is my favorite song from REM it may not be the best song they ever written for/by REM, but this song reminds me of jons comment. Everyones comments actually. I was leaving for military and was out with my best friends and this song just all made us super emotional and just still to this day is brilliant in many ways. Poetically and memory-wise.
  • Epp from Pittsburgh, PaA nice sweet sounding song about stipe going skinny dipping.
  • Adeeb from Dhaka, OtherA beautiful song indeed. The first time I heard this was when a bunch of friends and I were going to this farewell bash of a really close friend. We were yacking amongst ourselves and then one guy goes, shhhh! listen to this song; and all seven of us go quiet and contamplative. Amazing.
  • Jason Lee from New York, NyOh yeah, one more thing. This is one of the few songs I know (apart from all Doors songs) that would even be a brilliant, tear worthy poem without the music. Simply amazing.
  • Jason Lee from New York, NyI wouldn't say the best song ever written, but It's definetely the best song on the album, Matthew, and probably the best song by REM. I grew up with this song before I was listening to music. My uncle lives for Nightswimming, so whenever he's in town he plays it in the car. There's no better song to listen to in the car late at night after a long day than Nightswimming. Pure poetry and musical genious.
  • Matthew from New York, NyJon, I love this song too, but the best song ever written? It's not even the best song ever written by REM (my nod goes to either Half A World Away or South Central Rain, but there are a good 20 or so songs you could make better arguments for than this one). In fact, it's not even the best song on the album! Try Not To Breathe, Find the River and Man on the Moon are all better.
  • Jon from Wilton, CtThis is the best song ever written. How can nobody have commented on this. This song is the closest i ever come to crying.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Francis Rossi of Status Quo

Francis Rossi of Status QuoSongwriter Interviews

Doubt led to drive for Francis, who still isn't sure why one of Status Quo's biggest hits is so beloved.

Tom Johnston from The Doobie Brothers

Tom Johnston from The Doobie BrothersSongwriter Interviews

The Doobies guitarist and lead singer, Tom wrote the classics "Listen To The Music," "Long Train Runnin'" and "China Grove."

Dar Williams

Dar WilliamsSongwriter Interviews

A popular contemporary folk singer, Williams still remembers the sticky note that changed her life in college.

Gene Simmons of Kiss

Gene Simmons of KissSongwriter Interviews

The Kiss rocker covers a lot of ground in this interview, including why there are no Kiss collaborations, and why the Rock Hall has "become a sham."

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal Tap

The 10 Bands Most Like Spinal TapSong Writing

Based on criteria like girlfriend tension, stage mishaps and drummer turnover, these are the 10 bands most like Spinal Tap.

Christopher Cross

Christopher CrossSongwriter Interviews

The man who created Yacht Rock with "Sailing" wrote one of his biggest hits while on acid.