What does album artwork even mean to people nowadays? Probably bugger all to the vast majority of social media savvy, music streaming sophisticates. To me though, viewing my new album purchase from a screen makes me die a little inside each time.
I understand that times are changing and I don’t want to become my parents, who lambasted the CD era and still can’t get their heads around the concept of downloading. I get that the digital age has given unprecedented access to music for millions of people around the world and that with enough technical know-how, an artist could become a global wonder without the need for corporate backing.
However, I miss the love of artwork. A love which began with the overhead high-fives of five guys, from the west coast of America, called Pearl Jam and developed further through Tim Considine’s perfectly captured snap of Joni Mitchell for the cover of one of my favourite albums of all time, ‘Blue.’ Because of this I have become somewhat obsessed with album artwork and what it says about the music it’s pitching.
So is it a dying art form? Well, in short, no. Image is very much everything in this Tumblr/Instagram obsessed world after all. But it’s certainly changing. Beyonce’s latest self-titled album had no PR and no artwork as such. Instead, each song has an accompanying video which plays out like a modelling agency ad. Great if you fancy feeling inadequate for an hour of your life, not so great for hanging on your wall and looking at lovingly every so often.
It’s not all bad though. My recent purchase of Mogwai’s ‘Rave Tapes’ proves it. Designed by graphic designer Dave Thomas, the simple yet beautiful geometric patterns, the colourful interchangeable CD inserts and the bright pink vinyl prove that there is still a life and love in the format.
Other recent successes include Bowie’s first release in a decade. ‘The Next Day’ was deemed lazy by some - slap a white square over a now iconic album cover, that’s easy enough right - but the statement was pretty ingenious. Jonathan Barnbrook’s aim for the cover was to forget the past but it’s surely also making a statement about appropriation and our individual rights to an image in an internet obsessed, legal black-hole of a world, no?
Whilst Foster the People’s second studio album ‘Supermodel’, released on March 18th, is a visual and metaphorical delight. Designed by Young & Sick, who also designed the band’s first album artwork, it depicts a model surrounded by paparazzi as she spews out poetry. Not only is it visually stunning but it’s a commentary on today’s celebrity obsessed world. All of which makes me want to reach into the money jar and hear if the music will live up to the artwork’s promises.
The National got it right last year when they released ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ - a striking black-and-white cover photo, by Bohyun Yoon, depicts the head of a woman caught between a mirror. The sentiment was easy: when we’re looking for trouble, look no further than ourselves. Matt Berninger’s existential but somewhat simpler lyrics for this release backed the artwork up.
I know that at this moment in time, how you or I choose to purchase or listen to music is open to a plethora of avenues. Vinyl has had a resurgence and bands and artists, in the main, are still putting time and effort into how the final product looks. Perhaps how important the artwork is to you, has more to do with where your music taste lies.
Lady Gaga’s ‘Artpop’ album was heralded as the third coming but failed to hit the mark both lyrically and conceptually. Jeff Koons, the creator of the cover, said of the The Gazing Ball in the centre of the shot: ‘when you'd look at it you'd feel this transcendence where the ball would become everything and it would be about a mass dialogue about people not only wanting transcendence for themselves, but involved with the community discussing transcendence and what the possibilities are for humans.’ Which all sounds really deep and meaningful until you hear the lyrics to Sexxx Dream, huh Gaga?
So album artwork isn’t dead; as long as creative people continue to have a dialogue with each other the art form will remain strong.