Nightswimming deserves a quiet night. This song deserves a lot more than that – the high watermark of a band with one of the finest catalogues in modern music. They should have been the biggest band in the world at some point, but luckily for their fans, their legacy and their sanity, they never were.
Michael Stipe was often derided for his mumbled, nonsensical lyrics, but ‘Nightswimming’ is awash with vivid imagery: the photograph reflected on the windshield which sparks the dive into the past; the idea of two moons “side by side in orbit”; the memory of forgetting his shirt at the water’s edge – the use of the word “forgot” implies a rush of uninhibited recklessness. Stipe describes “the fear of getting caught” but it’s closer to a goosebump thrill than anything approaching real fear – “they cannot see me naked”, he marvels a few lines later. The song is a celebration, but it aches with a sense of longing for the type of easy moment – and mindset – he can no longer access.
‘Nightswimming’ is a paean to a simpler time, or as Stipe has put it, to “an innocence that’s either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost.” Although Stripe was writing about the adult worries and chores that slowly occupy the mental space and time once spared for a spot of nightswimming (which is suitably, incorrectly, a singular word), the further into the future we hurtle, the more this song seems like a twilight dream.
These days, if a group of teenage friends went skinny-dipping together, they’d be tagged in photos before they left the water’s edge, the entire thing would be periscoped live, the police would get involved, and the ones over 18 would be tried as adults and dragged onto the front pages of blogs. Perhaps. Maybe there are still groups of kids in quiet towns who have tired of the constant chronicling and curation of their lives, and instead now exist for the rush of doing things for the sheer experience. Maybe, because everyone records everything always, it is even easier to slip off the grid when desired. Perhaps these stolen moments are rendered even more precious because of it.
Memory is an unreliable faculty – by necessity. Bad experiences need to fade, good times need the edges sanded off and to be recast into great times – then legendary times. Your brain is a highlight reel; I’m sure when you think about your young years, you skip over the hours spent staring out of bus windows, the TV commercials you fidgeted or fast-forwarded through, the thousands of school-canteen sausage rolls you ate, the Maths exams you crammed for.
Memories can be warped as we wish, but they are rarely tainted by reality. Michael Stipe’s recollections of nightswimming are sharply focused only because they were never documented – instead being given time to slowly process, weight given to feelings rather than details. Hopefully this is still the case – people sometimes need to be able to leave their clothes on the water’s edge, to be naked in public, to break the rules, and to know that what they do is secret.