"Nightswimming" is a song by the American alternative rock band R.E.M. It was released in 1993 as the fifth single from the group's eighth album Automatic for the People (1992). "Nightswimming" is a ballad featuring singer Michael Stipe accompanied only by bassist Mike Mills on piano (lyrics and music respectively, but credited to the whole band as usual), a string arrangement by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and a prominent oboe by Deborah Workman in the latter part of the piece. Stipe sings about a group of friends who go skinny dipping at night, which draws from similar experiences in the band's early days.

Single by R.E.M.
from the album Automatic for the People
B-side"Losing My Religion" (Live)
ReleasedJuly 15, 1993 (UK)
GenreBaroque pop[1]
LabelWarner Bros.
R.E.M. singles chronology
"Everybody Hurts"
"Find the River"

Background and recording

Bassist Mike Mills recalled he was playing a piano riff at John Keane's studio in the band's hometown of Athens, Georgia. While Mills almost discarded the melody, it attracted the interest of singer Michael Stipe. Mills said, "I never thought it would amount to much because it was just a circular thing that kept going round and round and round. But it inspired Michael."[2] While the song was not included on Out of Time, the demo recorded during those sessions was used for Automatic for the People, with a string arrangement by John Paul Jones added to the track.[3] Mills has also claimed he recorded the piano part at Criteria Studios in Miami, on the same piano used by Derek and the Dominos on the recording of "Layla".[4]

"[Michael] listened once, nodded his head to hear it again, and on the second pass he sang the lyrics. It was 'Nightswimming,' exactly like the record we would record a year later," explained Peter Buck in 2003. "I was standing in the corner, dumbfounded."[5]

Composition and lyrics

As of 2003, "Nightswimming" was the only R.E.M. song for which the lyric was written before the music.[5] It was performed by Michael Stipe and Mike Mills; Stipe sings while Mills plays the piano. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck noted that the absence of drummer Bill Berry and himself from the song was typical of many tracks on Automatic for the People, where one or more band members would not appear on a given song.[6] Mills plays a piano motif he has referred to as "circular" in nature.[2]

The inspiration for the song has been debated by the band members. Stipe, in a 2001 Esquire article, suggested an origin of the song. "A few years ago, I wanted to write a song about night watchmen, so I hired one to guard the R.E.M. offices in Athens. I bought him a uniform and a flashlight and everything. He turned out to be kind of crazy and called me up in the middle of the night to tell me dirty stories about the Kennedys. I wrote the song about him, but he was so paranoid he said he was going to sue me, so I changed the lyric from 'Night watchman' to 'Nightswimming.'"[7]

Conversely in the past, Mills said, "It's based on true events", explaining that in the early 1980s R.E.M. and its circle of friends would go skinny dipping after the Athens clubs closed at night. "We'd go to parties, we'd go to the clubs and we'd go to the Ball Pump, and there would be any number of these same 50 people, so it was a very tight circle of friends."[2] Peter Buck holds a similar interpretation. However, Stipe has denied that that is the topic of the song; rather, Stipe says the song is about a "kind of an innocence that's either kind of desperately clung onto or obviously lost." Stipe said there are autobiographical elements to the song, but insists most of it is "made up."[8]


"Nightswimming" was released as a single in July 1993. The record reached number 27 in the United Kingdom and number 71 in Australia.[9]

Steven Hyden wrote for The A.V. Club, "Automatic for the People might be the most quietly serene rock record about loss ever made. There is no fear in this music; death is the album's main character, but he's presented as a vehicle for self-empowerment ("Try Not to Breathe"), immortality ("Man on the Moon"), and spiritual fulfillment ("Find the River"). On "Nightswimming", death returns to his home in the past, and memory is revealed as the last light emanating from a star that has burned out."[10]

Cover versions

American pop vocalist Ingrid Michaelson discussing covering the song in front of the members of R.E.M. at a charity event.

A cover of the song by Dashboard Confessional is featured on disc two of their album A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar.[11]

Another cover of the song by British-alternative group Gene is featured as a B-side to their 1997 single "Where Are They Now?".[12]

The song was performed by Coldplay with Michael Stipe on their Austin City Limits performance. During the show, Chris Martin called "Nightswimming" "the best song ever written."[13]

Ingrid Michaelson created a cover based around using a looper pedal for a charity event at Carnegie Hall.[14]

The song was performed by Sugarland on their 2009 live album Live on the Inside.

"Nightswimming" is also included on the Stereogum Presents... Drive XV: A Tribute to Automatic for the People with versions by The Wrens and You Say Party! We Say Die!.

Azure Ray, who originally formed in Athens, covered "Nightswimming" on their 2018 EP Waves.

Track listing

All songs written by Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe.

7" Single

  1. "Nightswimming" – 4:16
  2. "Losing My Religion" (acoustic live) – 4:55

12" and CD Maxi-Single

  1. "Nightswimming" – 4:16
  2. "World Leader Pretend" (acoustic live) – 5:16
  3. "Belong" (acoustic live) – 4:40
  4. "Low" (acoustic live) – 4:59

(All four acoustic live b-sides recorded live in Charleston, April 28, 1991 for the Mountain Stage radio program. "Belong" and "Low" both taken from the album Out of Time)


Chart (1993) Peak
Australia (ARIA)[15] 71
Germany (Official German Charts)[16] 93
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[17] 48
UK Singles (OCC)[18] 27


  • Black, Johnny. Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. Backbeat Books, 2004. ISBN 0-87930-776-5
  • Buckley, David. R.E.M.: Fiction: An Alternative Biography. Virgin, 2002. ISBN 1-85227-927-3
  • Platt, John (editor). The R.E.M. Companion: Two Decades of Commentary. Schirmer, 1998. ISBN 0-02-864935-4


  1. Macdonald, John (March 12, 2009). "Stipe, Patti Smith, Others Play R.E.M. Tribute in NYC". Spin. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  2. Buckley, p. 226
  3. Fricke, David. "Living Up to Out of Time/Remote Control: Parts I and II". Melody Maker. October 3, 1992.
  4. Black, p. 192
  5. Peter Buck's liner notes in In Time: The Best of R.E.M.
  6. Cavanagh, David. "Tune in, cheer up, rock out". Q. October 1994.
  7. "Michael Stipe Has Great Hair". Esquire. 2013-01-04. Retrieved 2014-08-25.
  8. Black, p. 193
  9. Buckley, p. 358
  10. Hyden, Steven (April 24, 2012). "Part 3: So fast, so numb (Automatic For The People to New Adventures In Hi-Fi)". The A.V. Club. Retrieved December 11, 2015.
  11. "Dashboard Confessional : A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar (2004 Bonus DVD) - Listen, Review and Buy at ARTISTdirect". Retrieved 2014-06-15.
  12. allmusic ((( Where Are They Now? [#1] > Overview )))
  13. "Coldplay On Austin City Limits On Jambase". Retrieved 2014-06-15.
  14. Video on YouTube
  15. Ryan, Gavin (2011). Australia's Music Charts 1988-2010. Mt. Martha, VIC, Australia: Moonlight Publishing
  16. " – R.E.M. – Nightswimming" (in German). GfK Entertainment Charts. Retrieved October 23, 2018.
  17. " – R.E.M. – Nightswimming". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved December 3, 2016.
  18. "REM: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company. Retrieved December 3, 2016.