automatic for the people

This week we borrowed about a half dozen cassettes from the record shop because we knew we’d be doing a little more driving than my usual none. One of them was REM’s Automatic for the People, which certainly sold more copies on cassette than it did on vinyl when it was released. I recall having to place a special order to get the LP.

There was sort of a collective shrug when REM announced they were breaking up after thirty years and sixteen albums (if you count Dead Letter Office). People stopped paying attention by the time they released their last record, Collapse Into Now — in fact, we still have one copy in the shop from the original few we ordered in 2011. But there was a time when they were considered one of the most important bands in America, and that time was the fall of 1992.

Everyone has a little nostalgia for the albums they listened to in high school, and at the time it seemed like everyone was listening to this album. It sold more than 18 million copies, so for a lot of people it was their first introduction to the band — for us it was just the next in a series of albums I loved.

Six songs were released as singles, but it seems like they were stretching it a little when they got to “Nightswimming,” which is a very good song but not really radio material. It has just enough of the band’s strange edge to save it from its own oversaturated sweetness.

Mike Mills, who usually played the bass, is the only member of the band who accompanies singer Michael Stipe on the song. He claims he used the same piano used by Jim Gordon on Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla.” There isn’t a consensus between members of the band as to the song’s meaning: Stipe claims it was originally about a night watchman the group had hired, and Mills has said its about their after show skinny dipping in the early days of REM.

Whatever its beginnings, there’s a wistful sense of lost innocence in the undercurrent of “Nightswimming,” a song which was very present the year we’d jump off our favorite bridge on Lake of the Isles into the black water below.

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