Album Art: There's No Shelf-Life on First Impressions
Before the advent of the music video, which ultimately led to the notion of musician as ubiquitous pop culture icon, the album cover was the best way for a band or artist to express themselves and their art in a non-auditory medium. The cover sleeve of their latest LP, 8-track, cassette, or CD was their chance to communicate an immediate, short-hand synopsis of what was in store for the consumer. It effectively set the tone for the next 30-90 minutes of the listener's life, acting as a sort of visual prologue for their upcoming sonic adventures. Whether it was just a photo of a group of scruffy dudes hanging around on a street corner outside of a bar, an intricate collage of seemingly unrelated images, or a distorted surrealist design juxtaposing unrelated elements, cover art was inextricably connected to the music itself - even if, and occasionally especially if, this connection was accidental or unintended.
Then, the iPod happened. A wonderful invention that has admittedly and undeniably changed the landscape of music for the better, I still can't help but begrudge the device for relegating album cover art to strictly ancillary status. Not that the sleeve was ever intended to trump the actual music (although this did happen on numerous occasions), but the two were part and parcel of one unified artistic body of work. They each had a role to play in the grander scheme of the piece; sometimes, they would work to create some greater thematic tension and, other times, to build an ethereal harmony that transcended those achieved in the songs.
Something's missing. It's still there but it's fading and perceived as outdated, obsolete, and unnecessary. There's no need to gaze at an album cover anymore before listening to it; you simply scroll through your digital queue, and there you have it - rarely in the form of the actual album either, but rather a personalized greatest hits collection of your favorite artist(s) to scroll through at your leisure. Again, this certainly isn't a bad thing, because a lot of albums are only worth listening to for the radio single or a specific personal favorite or two, but a lot of our favorite albums were meant to be listened to straight through as a single composition - every song relating to its companions and containing a well-defined meaning within the larger whole. Removing specific songs from this context is easy (and fun!), but often detracts from the intended listening experience (although, we are living a very post-modern existence, so perhaps authorial intent is truly a thing of the past).
The digital music experience affords us a great degree of convenience, but it also robs us of a more richly satisfying listening of our favorite musicians and the pleasure of gazing at an album cover in wonder - a once integral piece of the experience that is no longer perceived as relevant.
A Passing Storm
Last month, perhaps the greatest contributor to the idea of album cover as art piece, Storm Thorgerson, succumbed to his battle with cancer at the age of 69. Thorgerson is best known for his work creating iconic album covers for Pink Floyd (Wish You Were Here, A Momentary Lapse in Reason), but he also worked with Led Zeppelin (Houses of the Holy, etc.), The Mars Volta (Frances the Mute, etc.), and Peter Gabriel (Peter Gabriel I, II, and III) in designing their most visually astonishing and recognizable albums. The impact that this man had on the art of the album cover cannot be stressed enough, and now, with his passing, I fear that the importance of this artistic element has officially died along with its greatest artist.
With that said, what better time than now to eulogize the deceased, yet memorable, art of the album cover! Below, I've compiled a brief list of three of my favorites and solicited some aesthetic assistance from resident art authority Tony Martolock. These aren't my top three mind you (nor are they Tony's), but rather three that I've always found distinctly interesting for one reason or another - so much so that I actually have something to say about them. And what I have to say is this...
Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here
Talk about photography of the absurd! What in the world are these two finely dressed gentlemen doing in this spooky block of concrete? What possible business could they be conducting here? Are they in some sort of industrial park? Perhaps a long forgotten series of airport hangers? The back lot of a movie studio in a parallel universe? I guess it doesn't really matter; what matters is the feeling of utter isolation that these surroundings evoke. There's something very empty and very unforgiving about this drab complex that makes the viewer extremely uncomfortable. Top it off with the burning handshake man, and there's almost no way of making sense of this timeless cover fashioned by the late Thorgerson without a bit of historical info.
Supposedly, the concept of the photograph deals with what the designer thought was the deeper lyrical meaning of the album: "Unfulfilled presence." The two men pictured were both stunt doubles, and the burning man is actually wearing a flame retardant suit beneath his more business-like one, and a hood on top of his head covered with a wig to protect him from the flames. According to the cover designer, the handshake is supposed to imply the tendency for human beings to cover their true motives, thus, one man is burning, and the other will soon "get burned." Every man for himself, and no one gets out alive!
Tony Speaks the Truth in All Things:
Before photo manipulation software such as photoshop, photographers were restricted to effects that could only be achieved by physical means. (e.g. That guy on the right is really on fire!)
With the musical content of the album eluding to the importance of keeping up appearances, what better way to illustrate such a notion than depicting a man on fire casually going about business as usual. Firm grip, establish eye contact, two to five seconds is crucial; wouldn’t want this person to perceive anything out of the ordinary.
This is certainly one of the most recognizable album covers of its era, brought to us by the late and legendary Storm Thorgerson; whose professional portfolio could shake the very foundations of any aspiring art student.
The Clash: London Calling
The cover of the third album from "the only band that matters" simply consists of an action shot of Paul Simonon violently swinging his bass down in full force during a live performance at The Palladium in New York City in 1979. But it also represents a seminal moment in rock history. Rock bands steeped in the blues such as Led Zeppelin and The Who were beginning to recede from the limelight, and punk was supposed to be the defining musical paradigm of the 1980s. It didn't exactly happen that way, but not for a lack of trying on the The Clash's part.
In the spirit of this transition, the photo was intended to be a sort of companion piece to the cover for Elvis Presley's eponymous debut album, but symbolizing a seismic shift in what Rock & Roll could actually mean. The Clash were nothing if not a band concerned with authenticity and substance, and their music often dealt with themes of political unrest, civil disobedience, and the pressures of adulthood, as opposed to sappy love songs or stereotypical rock tunes predicated on sex and drugs.
Snapped an instant before Simonon's instrument presumably smashed into pieces, the photo represents the punk fury that The Clash was preparing to unleash on an as-of-yet unsuspecting world. More than 30 years later, it's as if that moment still hasn't quite happened, but it's about to, and when it does, things will never be the same.
Tony Speaks the Truth in All Things:
It's March 23rd 1956 and all is good and wholesome in the world of Rock n’ Roll; aside from a gyrating pelvis here and there. Elvis Presley released his first album destined to become the stuff of rock n’ roll legend.
Jump ahead 23 years to 1979; an English punk rock band is determined to let the world know that things are not especially good and wholesome in rock n’ roll - or anywhere, for that matter. What better way to express such sentiments than the act of violently smashing your bass guitar against the stage in front of thousands of adoring fans. Luckily, English photographer, Pennie Smith, was there to capture this beautiful moment in rock history and preserve it for future generations and a million emulations.
This beautiful and iconic album cover pays homage to the “King” of rock and roll from a group of his most unruly and outspoken subjects.
Pearl Jam: No Code
Largely because the music so closely resembled the artistic packaging of Pearl Jam's fourth album, No Code was the band's first true commercial failure. Not because it isn't beautiful, but because it presented too much information for the modern fan to process in one sitting. Seeing the forest for the trees may be a cliche, but it is a cliche for a reason (as most are), and No Code reinforces the truth of this age-old idiom. The band consciously sought to create a piece of art that seems arbitrary, but is actually chocked full of information that can only be deciphered with the right amount of patience and imagination.
This was Pearl Jam's first trek into the truly avant-garde, shedding their arena alterna-rock tendencies in favor of a more introverted and contemplative meditation on aging, loneliness, and the band's place in the post-grunge landscape of Rock & Roll. Upon the first listen (or even the first 20) there doesn't appear to be any cohesion between the songs; similarly, the images on the album seem entirely random as well. Don't worry, this disorientation shall pass. It's a lot like an especially challenging riddle in that the answers aren't immediately available, but the instant you figure it out, you'll never view it the same way again.
Every aspect of the album, from the title to the photographs contained inside the sleeve to the music itself, defies the notion that there is such a thing as a random occurrence. For instance, the sleeve actually unfolds to reveal four quadrants, each containing 29 different photos. These pictures then combine to create a larger, yet more subtle, image of The Eye of Providence - a pyramid with an eyeball in the middle that is present on the back of a U.S. dollar bill and often associated with Freemasonry. To me, this implies the illusion of freedom and the thinly veiled reality of control. No Code allows us a brief glance behind this curtain before returning to our manufactured, largely banal existence.
Tony Speaks the Truth in All Things:
This album cover design utilizes photo-montage, a type of collage work; that represents the concept of smaller, seemingly unrelated parts being grouped together to form a cohesive whole; very appropriate, as a collection of songs are arranged together to comprise an album.
The collection of photographs, when viewed from a distance, come together to form the symbol of the eye of providence. A symbol long associated with the “eye of god” or the “all seeing eye” which could, to some feed into Vedder’s alleged messianic complex, but also serves to enhance the well established mythology already surrounding the band.
The term “no code” is used in medicine when a patient has expressed their desire to not be resuscitated if CPR is required. This in some ways, became Vedder's artistic sentiment towards making this album and proceeding in the vein in which they, as artists, wished to continue.
Resolving to “go it alone” with their own vision, regardless of commercial success, is truly a testament to this band's integrity.
Any proper musician's first responsibility should be maintaining the integrity of their art. Obviously, the music itself is the most important aspect of this obligation, but the visual representation of the thematic elements of an album go a long way in delineating the difference between a mere band and a synergistic collection of artists. Art is art regardless of the medium, and it's when musicians recognize this fact and actively participate in its truth that the best album covers are produced. When properly utilized, they have the power to compliment and augment the genius (or stupidity) of a set of artists, while allowing for a more in-depth dialogue with their fan base - which is what it's all about really.
First impressions are everything, even if they're only fully appreciated in hindsight.