‘Nightswimming’ is unassailable.
This beautiful song is a rarity in R.E.M.’s back catalogue in terms of arrangement and features a relatively straightforward set of lyrics, at least for Michael Stipe. Whether or not you skinny dipped as a teenager, and whether or not you did so poetically isn’t really the point. Anyone who ever experienced sexual and romantic awakening in the company of fellow adventurers, especially in bucolic surrounds, gets this song on a primal level. In this moment, Stipe tapped into the motherlode.
There follows a trio of live versions, recorded at The Capital Plaza Theatre, Charleston, West Virginia on April 28 1991. The tracks were played for the Mountain Stage radio show produced by WV Public Broadcasting and distributed by NPR. I’m sure the show was grand, but as I’ve said elsewhere, the live b-side is a bit of a cheat (cheek ?) in my book. After the title track, catalogue number W0184TP is a bit of a let down.
‘World Leader Pretend’ is so much twee-r live and acoustic than on record. It’s mainly down to the leading role played by the accordion, and the ponderousness of the bass. It’s still an occasionally powerful song, mysterious in its imagery and struggle: “let my machines talk to me”. It’s just that in this setting, without the same drama and electricity, it is definitely missing necessary oomph.
‘Belong’, one of my all-time R.E.M. favourites, suffers similarly. In the absence of current, Mike Mills’ bass droops like a semi where it should be tumescent. And I want to know WHAT THE HELL BILL BERRY IS DOING WHILE ALL THIS IS GOING ON ? WHERE ARE HIS DRUMS ? This is one of those songs that needs the full-charge of D/C and the application of a rhythm section’s full attentions. Props to Stipe and Mills for their game attempt at hitting all levels for the vocals; not an easy job live and they’ve done it pretty well.
To close it out ‘Low’ is given a try but again, a song that derives such subtle potency from the occasional injection of amplification has little action left in its absence.
That’s your lot then. I’m going back to listening to these songs as Bingo Hand Job intended.