The Lost Art of the Album Cover
I might come off as one of these stubborn people who thinks…
music was better in the past. Aside from the fact it was; my protestations and reluctances are based on hard evidence. In the case of album art, I have to wonder what is happening? I know vinyl is coming back into fashion but that is the point: it is very much a fashion item. People are hanging L.P.s on shelves and framing them. There are some people that, God forbid, actually listen to things but it seems rather rare. It got me thinking about records and the album cover in general. Are we actually in a time where digitisation is replacing the physical product? Certainty, mediums like the humble C.D. are being phased out. Many people are a bit fed up with compact discs because of their limitations. Not only is the ‘technology’ a bit outdated – why do we need have artists recording on both sides of a disc?! – but there are inherent flaws. C.D.s are fragile and can often be reduced to scrap by dropping it on a carpeted floor. A newborn baby is not as tender, but when it comes to a C.D., the things will scratch with the merest breath of wind. Cassettes are obsolete – and such a terrible idea to start with – and there is not really a physical music-storing alternative, is there?! The vinyl record, decades-old as it is, seems to be the most reliable and long-lasting format we have. It is not just the sturdiness – less prone to scratches then C.D.s and a lot bigger; good as it seems like you’re getting value for money – but it is something you treat as a previous commodity. Listening to an L.P. is an experience: shoving a C.D. in the stereo can seem like a rather unemotional and uneventful thing. You get used to it and can never attach any personal emotion to such a small and mass-produced thing. I know vinyls, or new records anyway, are mass-produced, but just think about the idea itself. I am currently looking for an as-good-as-new version of Kate Bush’s seminal debut, The Kick Inside. Not just because of the hair-raising, spine-tingling music: the album cover (itself) is something that makes me stare and smile like an idiot. That artwork is replicated on a C.D. but is a tiny, reduced version of what you get on an actual record. Being someone short-sighted and impatient; you don’t want to squint when you are looking at album art.
The full-sized, proper vinyl is almost canvas-sized. In a sense, whether you want to deny it or not, it is a work of art. Take a vinyl (and its cover), pop it on the wall and have a good look: doesn’t it look like a painting? Maybe that was the idea from the very start. Record producers and artists could have put a crappy sleeve around their record or something vague. Given that amount of space and opportunity: it was only natural musicians put their all into producing the most eye-catching and vivid album art they could. Sure, there have been some atrocious and abysmal attempts at an album cover. You can do a search of ‘the worst album covers ever’ and, you can bet your life on it, you’d get some truly bone-chilling, nightmare-inducing visions. I still recoil when seeing a certain Kevin Rowland, well…dragged-up and ‘sexy’. Similarly, for all his merits, a near-nude Prince or some hideous self-portraits are enough to have me sat on the toilet trying to eject my internal organs out my rear-end. Those satanic, destroy-them-in-the-fiery-pits-of-Hell monstrosities make a valid argument for making all music digital. That aside, I am sad music/albums are become less material and more virtual. I know downloads and music-sharing sites make music-purchasing easier, quicker and, a lot of times, cheaper. The sheer cost of a vinyl record can be staggering. I have browsed in music shops and seen a record like Bastille’s latest album (whatever it is called!) and they’re asking nearly twenty-quid for it! Who the heck is ever going to shill that sort of cash?! I’d be quite content to pay that sort of dosh for Graceland, Revolver or Paul’s Boutique – but are modern records worth that much? It may be going off-track here but maybe that appropriate for the modern day: if people are willing to buy vinyl as collectors’ items, then why not charge such exorbitant rates? Art buyers are, by and large, suckers who will pay top-dollar for any pretentious crap. I am being facetious as there are some current albums worth having, playing and displaying. In fact, by all means, put an album on the wall with pride. The thing is, you’re doing that because it’s an aesthetic choice, no?
You don’t hang a painting up because it fills a crack in the wall so why would you utilise a record as art and have it look boring and galling? The reason I wanted to write this piece is two-fold. For a start, I wanted to look at why vinyl is so crucial and making sure, if you are buying records as an art purchase, doing it right. On the other hand, and more importantly, it was to decry and highlight the surfeit of genuinely inspiring album covers in today’s music. Maybe the last album that really caught my eye, in terms of its central image, was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The cover shows dead bodies and black faces brandishing wads of dollars in front of the WHITE House. It is a juxtaposition of the privileged white government – although Obama was President in 2015 (when the album was released) – and the struggle of the black community in America. At face value, the artwork can be seen as a random idea with no deeper context. Throw in the album’s title and there is that outrage black people feel in the U.S. The fact they are not represented and struggle alone. Not only is the music extraordinary (on To Pimp a Butterfly) but you have that fantastic visual representation. Actually, and undercutting my earlier point, Stormzy’s debut album, Gang Signs & Prayer reinvents The Last Supper with black symbolism and gang culture iconography. The album’s depictions – gang members dressed in black; black plates and consoles; everything black – could be a nod to stereotypes and misconceptions about the black youth but it could run deeper – maybe the religious parody, as the album has ‘Prayer’ in its title, means the young black community needs to embrace religion to think they have hope in life – a better life from the violence and bloodshed of their estates. Who knows, but one thing is sure: both these modern album covers provoke discussion and thought.
Throw the microscope through the years and there are few recent (the last few years) album covers that really compel the imagination. David Bowie’s Blackstar has those black stars and seems quite simple. The fragmented star at the bottom of the album spell ‘Bowie’ whilst there is a hidden bonus: the album glows blue under ultraviolet light and stars appear if you leave it in direct sunlight. In an age where everything has to go online – including bowel movements and your kids’ pointless burbling – something like the Blackstar album cover is for those who appreciate there here and now. You discover the idiosyncrasies and hidden layers of the design. Through accident or design; those revelations come and are intended to outstand. In a rebellious way, it is a push against their instant Tweet and status update. It is a slow-burning realisation and process that harks to the album covers of old. That brings to mind another point: the album/vinyl covers that not only look great but have in-built ‘extras’ and hidden messages. Some records, like Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, has a building/window design where album (title) letters would appear in each panel. Others, such as Nirvana’s Nevermind made you think about that baby-in-the-swimming-pool-chasing-the-dollar significance. It is an iconic image that has been interpreted to death but could have been an off-the-cuff idea from the band and photographer. I’ll admit there have been some contemporary, simple designs – the rainbow-coloured lettering for Radiohead’s In Rainbows; the pink-letters-again-black-background of Beyoncé (suggesting femininity in a black world or because it has instantly and easy appeal – but there are fewer knockout covers than old. Just THINK about the classics. The Rolling Stones’ lurid, sexy and suggestive Sticky Fingers;. The Beatles’ Abbey Road zebra crossing walk-across – the debate whether Paul was dead and what his bare-footed image represented. The Beatles created two more legendary covers. Their eponymous record (‘The White Album’) revolutionised the album cover because of its simplicity – Jay Z parodied that concept for The Black Album. Perhaps the most famous is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Chocked with historical figures, memorable images and all manner of possible interpretations: it is one of the most thought-provoking, challenging and spectacular album covers ever.
Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage has Lindsey Buckingham embraced by Stevie Nicks – she is leaning back with her face looking away. Buckingham is turning to Christine McVie with a rather tired and dismissive look as if to say: “Stevie being Stevie again!”. Mirage arrived five years after Rumours: one of the most explosive and fractious break-up records ever. Tusk – sandwiched between Rumours and Mirage – saw that tension rise, so in a way, Mirage is the ‘divorce album’ that could be interpreted all sorts of ways. The cover is rife with possibility and interpretations. Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. sees the ‘workman’/honest Joe as the white-collar American: in jeans with a rag hanging from his trousers; cast against the American flag. The Clash’s London Calling shows a bass guitar being smashed during a gig – it has the same lettering/design as Elvis Presley’s eponymous album. I have mentioned Nirvana’s Nevermind but Cobain’s sweetheart, Courtney Love, created a masterful album cover in Hole’s Live Through This. The beauty queen on the cover has mascara dripping down her face and highlights the emptiness and delusions of the beauty industry. It is a hard-hitting commentary and unforgettable image as haunting as it is shallow. Patti Smith’s Horses might, on face value, look like a simple, casual photograph. Smith has the look of Frank Sinatra: a sultry look to the camera as she tosses a jacket over her shoulder. It is iconic because it depicts a female artist as a more masculine, less-traditional figure. The Velvet Underground and Nico’s famous eponymous album has that Andy Warhol-designed banana image that makes you wonder what it means. When the album came out, there was a sticker over the banana. You could peel the sticker and the banana would be revealed. There is humour, art and pathos all mixed together. Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is that tobacco-tin design that often tops lists of the greatest covers ever. The Rolling Stones created two further visual masterpieces in Let It Bleed and Exile on Main St.
I have seen a list of last year’s so-called ‘best’ album covers and they are, to be honest, a rather pale bag of offerings. Beyoncé’s Lemonade sees the heroine is a very striking pose but it has nothing on the classic covers of old. Aside from that, there are few that make you sit back and wonder; nothing that stops you in the tracks or makes you think. It has been a long time since I marvelled at an album cover which makes me sad. I feel a lot of modern artists are aiming their material at platforms like iTunes and Spotify so, as such, there is less energy expended at album covers. Many go for a rather boring and predictable band/artist portrait or some ridiculously pretentious option. Many modern vinyls have sky-high prices so many are reluctant to buy them. The C.D. is still going strong but how many people actually take the time to look at the cover of an album? The rise and accessibility of digital music mean there is more emphasis on speed and availability than physical art and traditional values. Perhaps it is just a sign of the times. I, for one, always look for an alluring or intriguing album cover – especially if it is a chance purchase or musical risk. I buy a lot of albums based on quality but there are some I will pick off the shelf because of that cover – all of them at least ten-years-old or more. In a time where there are dozens of albums released every month (in the mainstream); it seems baffling there are very few standout album covers. One can have their own view as to why this is but I think it has a lot to do with the use and purpose of vinyl; a bit to do with modern attention spans and costs. Many artists are so keen to get music out and have very little money left for photograph and album art. As such, music videos are rather beige and plodding: not so much visual works; more promotional tools to ensure the song has an actual face. It has been a long time since I was grabbed by a music video, which doesn’t really surprise me. The modern generation favours that quick fix and instant fix. We are not looking to spend time reading reviews or drooling over album covers; we do not dissect music videos or long for album sleeves full of lyrics and details.
Many will say there is little need to place any significance on album art when the music is the most important thing. True, but in a time where competition is hard and hot: why would you not expend energy and thought making your product stand out from the crowd? Music is a business and, in a way, a fashion parade. So few artists are expending time to make their artwork shine and resonate which seems foolhardy and naïve. There is no guarantee a great and sharp album cover reflects fantastic music but it gets people into the tent! If we abandon concerns like artwork and album covers, you are proving you only care about the music itself. Many would say that is the point of a music career but I respectfully disagree. An album cover is a representation of what the album is about and if you put out an insipid and unimpressive cover, how many people are going to be hooked by the music? Perhaps this is a sign of things to come: albums all about the digital aspect and less to do with design and looks. As I started out by saying; the vinyl and traditional album sleeve is something we hang on walls and mount rather than opening up and putting on the record player. I am fine with the record becoming an accessory – it is always good seeing vinyl bought and kept alive. I do worry people are missing the point, though. Not only should you PLAY a vinyl – and enjoy that pure sound and atmosphere digital versions do not give -but appreciate the physical aspects and the attentions to detail. Open up the sleeve and look at the pictures and designs; admire the cover and revel in that big and chunky record. A lot of the classic, legendary records had lyrics included in the booklet/sleeve and little details and gems lurking underneath. Some had clever conceptual designs and nice little touches. Consider something like Abbey Road and not only do you have that unforgettable photo right in front of you but so much more to discover. I could vacillate and rhapsodise for hours but will drill it down to this: do not forget why vinyls and records are so important to begin with. They are physical things, almost sentient, and items intended to enjoy and be treasured. As such, the artwork was always an important factor for many artists. I worry we have abandoned that heritage and reduced modern to inane and perfunctory art and the over-reliance of digital means. Gone are the record players and encapsulating record sleeves – you’d sit there and look at it whilst the vinyl spun on the player; kid-like whilst you read the notes inside – and replaced with Spotify playlists and iTunes links. Again, it may seem like I am grousing and coming off a prematurely old-aged moaner. My views reflect a wider audience of true music lovers who long for the return of the album cover: vinyls and L.P.s at their purest and most astonishing. Maybe we will see that but I have a very deep-down fear we are at a stage where music…
WILL get lost in the machine forever.