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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: R.E.M. and the Leap From College-Rock Gods to Mainstream Icons

The latest installment of ‘60 Songs’ looks at the Athens, Georgia, band and “Nightswimming,” a fan favorite

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Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our show 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 44 , which breaks down R.E.M.’s ’90s output and the song “Nightswimming.”

“Nightswimming” does not qualify as a deep cut, certainly: It’s a proverbial fan favorite, it’s got decent streaming numbers, R.E.M. technically released it as a single back when that still mattered. Also: If you play even 10 seconds of “Nightswimming” on a piano in public, like at like a house party or something, you are guaranteed to have sex with somebody at that party, if you want. I made that up. I can’t play it. I wouldn’t know. But it feels true, and I think you’ll agree that’s what matters.

But “Nightswimming” is also somewhat of an anomaly. It’s a piano ballad, with strings and so forth, no bass, drums, or guitar whatsoever, two out of the four guys in R.E.M. don’t even appear on it, and in terms of public standing this song is not “Everybody Hurts,” or “Man on the Moon,” or more to the point it’s not “Losing My Religion,” from their previous album and shock commercial breakthrough, Out of Time in ’91. “Losing My Religion” is pretty objectively R.E.M.’s biggest song, and it’s how I, personally, first got super into R.E.M. But I have always suspected that getting into R.E.M. through “Losing My Religion” is uncool. I submit to you that R.E.M. are a completely different band, a different lifestyle if you discovered them in 1982 or ’85 or ’87 versus if you discovered them in 1991. The fact is that I know the five studio albums R.E.M. released in the 1990s as well, as intimately, as I know any five consecutive (or nonconsecutive) albums by anybody ever. I know ‘em by heart, I somehow never get tired of ‘em. Just this morning, I was sitting around marveling at Peter Buck’s guitar tone on New Adventures in Hi-Fi. The sequence from “Undertow” to “E-Bow the Letter” to “Leave” in particular. I’ll keep you out of it. You’re welcome.

But I do feel the need to clarify that this is a ’90s R.E.M. celebration presided over by an emphatic ’90s R.E.M. guy. I know the ’80s records; I love the ’80s records. But I can’t help but feel an academic, a critical distance from them, at least compared to the later stuff I truly love, emotionally, and my sincere opinions about ’80s R.E.M. are often indistinguishable from, like, trolling. I believe what I’m saying but it sounds like I don’t. For example this is the single best song R.E.M. released in the 1980s.

Yes, I know it’s not their song. Yes, I know it’s not true. Actually, it’s true. “Superman” is the single best song R.E.M. released in the ’80s. You know why? The voices of Mike Mills and Michael Stipe intertwined. The alpha and omega, the Cupid and Psyche, the gin and tonic, the Tango and Cash, the chocolate and peanut butter of college rock, alternative rock, arena rock, rock ‘n’ roll of any sort. The pinnacle of the very notion of harmony in my opinion.

R.E.M. formed in 1980 at the University of Georgia, in Athens. Michael Stipe on lead vocals. Peter Buck on guitar. Mike Mills on bass. Bill Berry on drums. Those three guys traded instruments a lot, but basically, yeah. First single “Radio Free Europe” in 1981; first album Murmur in 1983. Their second-best album overall. You know the 33⅓ book series—and podcast? The 33⅓ book on Murmur by J. Niimi is excellent, if you’d like to learn about Southern Gothic, and kudzu, and jangly guitars. I am professionally obligated to describe early R.E.M. in particular as jangly; they were super-poetic and cryptic and melodic as guitar-rock bands go. You hear a lot of the Byrds in early R.E.M., a psychedelic country-folk deal. You hear power pop, and Southern power pop in particular, Big Star for example, and the dB’s, who were basically Southern. You hear the artier and more poetic end of punk: Velvet Underground, and the Feelies, and Television, and Michael Stipe’s beloved Patti Smith. But from the very first with R.E.M. you also hear propulsion, and aggression, and yeah punk rock in the classic sense. The pinnacle of the very notion of harmony filtered through punk rock, filtered through hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll. Actually R.E.M. doing “Radio Free Europe” on David Letterman in 1983 is maybe my favorite late-night musical performance ever. Just the lankiest dudes imaginable kicking rich amounts of ass.

Their first five albums are Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, and Document. R.E.M.’s sixth album, Green, comes out in 1988, and they’ve jumped from the relatively modest and homespun I.R.S. Records to corporate behemoth Warner Bros. Records. They’ve jumped to a major label. The band would like very much to make the leap from “college rock,” from college-radio stardom to just regular mainstream popular-rock radio stardom. Perhaps heavier MTV rotation as well. To the dismay of some percentage of their fan base, R.E.M. has sold out, in the parlance of their time. I have given up even trying to explain the concept of selling out to young people today. Forget it. As I understand it, ’80s R.E.M. felt like yours, felt like your own personal secret no matter how much college-radio play they got, whereas as we’re creeping up on the ’90s the band’s on the brink of belonging to everyone. Chumps like me are on the brink of crashing the party. You maybe don’t even recognize them anymore. This unease was best personified, on the Green album, by a disconcertingly peppy little tune called “Stand.”

Polarizing. And also R.E.M.’s biggest hit, up to that point: no. 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. “The One I Love” from Document in 1987, a far less controversial great R.E.M. song, peaked at no. 9. (I once saw Bush, the band Bush, cover “The One I Love” as a tribute to Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell after Chris Cornell died, I may have mentioned this already, just a stupendously confusing moment in my adult life, given my teenaged understanding of how those three bands corresponded to each other.) Anyway a sense of unease, but also impending greatness, therefore surrounds R.E.M.’s seventh album, Out of Time, released in March 1991. This record is called Out of Time because they couldn’t think of a title and ran out of time. The band decides they won’t really tour in support of this record because they toured for 10 years straight and they’re tired. And Michael Stipe, as quoted in Tony Fletcher’s book Perfect Circle: The Story of R.E.M., is giving the media quotes like, “When I say that this record is going to alter the course of pop history, I say it with my tongue pretty firmly in my cheek and a little snicker on my lips, but I think it really is, for 1991, a pretty peculiar record.” And on the first single Peter Buck is playing a mandolin, of all things. None of this necessarily suggests impending greatness, or the altering of the course of pop history, but yeah, you don’t have to be very cool to know what happened next.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.