Monday, December 19, 2011

90's Hit Parade #6

R.E.M. - Nightswimming

My favorite R.E.M. song, "Nighstwimming," is a gorgeous piano ballad, similar to their early song "A Perfect Circle" (another favorite) but somehow even more beautiful. It's a song about growing up and losing that intensity of feeling that goes with being young, which is the ultimate source of nostalgia. The narrator of "Nightswimming" is driving at night, his mind drifting back to a night when he went skinnydipping in a river with some friends, maybe as a child or maybe as a teenager. It was a wild night, and he remembers it in a blur, and knows he could never explain it to anyone. "I'm not sure all these people understand/It's not like years ago/The fear of getting caught/The recklessness of water/They can not see me naked." When people talk about how much better, for instance, the music of their youth was, what they're really talking about isn't the music itself, but how they felt when they first heard it. No music will ever sound as good to me as the first time I heard KISS, or Van Halen, or the Dead Kennedys. It's not that these bands were so great that they could never be equaled--they might not even be very good--it's something that occurred in my nervous system, and every time I listen to them I'm chasing some kind of fix, hoping to feel that intensely about something again. I never will. I'll never get as high as I got off my first joint, or feel the rush of adventure from my first road trip, or feel the yearning heartbreak that I experienced in my first breakup. "All these things go away/Replaced by everyday."

"Nightswimming" is also a summer song, but of a rare subclass, the end-of-summer song. It's the kind of song that takes place in late summer, when the fun and games are lent an air of desperation, the first day of school is always there in the back of your mind, lurking like the Grim Reaper on the horizon. When Michael sings "Septembers coming soon," the line stuck somewhat awkwardly into its stanza, like a desk shoved katty-cornered to fit into an odd-sized room, the phrase is infused with foreboding. He lets it sit there for a beat. He could have just stopped there, and it would be an amazing line, but instead we get this: "I'm pining for the moon/And what if there were two/Side by side in orbit/Around the ferris sun?" At which point I simply run out of words to describe this song.

Bonus Beat: Vic Chesnutt - Panic Pure

Biggest problem in making this list: I'm still finding new stuff from the decade. I got this Vic Chesnutt album when I was halfway through the list, and realized that this song really deserved to be on the list somewhere, but didn't want to go in and mess it up. Chesnutt, more than R.E.M. or even the B-52's, embodies the idiosyncratic spirit of that little Georgia college town where I lived for five and a half years, in ways that I probably can't adequately explain (I believe I saw Chesnutt perform at the Earthfest the first time I visited Athens). But at any rate, the opening verse of "Panic Pure" is worth considering as a precursor to "Nightswimming":

My earliest memory is of holding up a sparkler
High up to the darkest sky
At some 4th of July spectacular
I shook it with an urgency I'll never be able to repeat


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