What is Your favourite album cover?

Music is evolving in so many different ways, and with the advent of download, music does not always have so much of a physical presence in our music collections anymore. Yet there is always going to be something very special about the physical format of an album, be it CD, Vinyl, Cassette (or even the long-deceased mini-disc).

I spent many hours as a teenager poring over lyric booklets that came with some of my favourite CDs. Indeed, I credit reading and memorizing the lyrics to Ricky Martin songs for getting me through my Spanish exams at high school. I enjoy reading the dedications behind the albums, often just a simple acknowledgement to family and friends of the fact that the artist behind the album has in all likelihood been largely absent from their lives in the months leading up to the release. By reading sleeve notes , over the years I’ve learnt to say “I love you” in many different languages (absolutely useless), that Bjork dedicated “Post” to Ren and Stimpy (the cartoon characters with a death wish from the “Simpsons” show) and that Coldplay dedicated “Parachutes” to their drummer’s mother (useless, but still vaguely interesting).

Album art can capture our imagination in different ways. Some artists’ careers have gone stratospheric simply as a result of a particularly groundbreaking album cover. The Strokes struck lucky with their controversial debut, for example. The Beatles created, arguably, some of the most iconic images of all time. And The Velvet Underground & Nico created the ultimate link between music and art when Andy Warhol famously designed the sleeve, with early editions featuring a peeled banana sticker. Personally, I always found the album art for Green Day’s “Dookie” CD absolutely fascinating – there are so many little stories taking place on the front cover, that it could probably spawn a 500 page novel! For completely different reasons, I’m sure I spent a disproportionate amount of time in my youth staring at the front cover of A-ha’s “Hunting High and Low”. Whatever the CD, the album art always has a message to convey and we will be become receptive to this different ways as we all get older. For example, I always perceived the art for Radiohead’s “OK Computer” to be fairly uninteresting, but as I’ve got older I can seek a certain amount of solace from it – the cars driving aimlessly on the motorway sum up the mundane nature of everyday life and our efforts to escape from this (my interpretation, at least!)

I recently asked some friends whether there are any particular album covers that appeal to them. From the range of different answers, the overwhelming factor that bound them all together was the fact that the images reminded the listener of their youth in some way. We all create our own visuals when we listen to music, and the art on the cover can become like a flashcard in our memory, a visual which we will forever keep linked to the music. If this visual somehow links with our own experiences of adolescence, an additional element of nostalgia creeps into our perception of it and allows us to experience the music on the CD/record in a different way. Sadly, this element is lost when music is downloaded digitally.

One friend, a graphic designer, was able to enlighten me on the intricacies behind the album art for the Pet Shop Boys’ “Pure”, from a technical point of view. Any listener would find the soft form of the cover very interesting, but I had never reflected before on the process behind its manufacture, or the significance of the colour. Yet another example which demonstrates just how much thought goes into a single piece of cover art.

So which is my favourite album art? Definitely “Riot on An Empty Street” by Kings of Convenience. It is an interesting cover, which also combines elements of personal nostalgia. But we’re all different, so what’s yours?

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Austra "Being in a toxic relationship can sometimes feel like being lost in a maze."

Austra "Being in a toxic relationship can sometimes feel like being lost in a maze."

Being in a toxic relationship can sometimes feel like being lost in a maze. Every attempt to turn a corner lands you back where you started. Austra aka Katie Austra Stelmanis announces her fourth album. HiRUDiN is both a bold acknowledgement of such patterns of behaviour and a testament to the power of breaking them.

Katie Austra Stelmanis has been better known by her middle name for three albums, ten years, and countless tours. She wrote, produced, and performed all her own records, occasionally sharing the spotlight with a band to tour live. From the outside, things were going really well for a while: she built a devoted fan base and sold out shows all around the world. However, on the inside, Stelmanis was beginning to feel stagnant and uninspired. "I was losing faith in my own ideas," she explains. Without realising it, she'd got caught up in a toxic relationship that was tearing her apart.

It wasn't until Stelmanis was ready to face her insecurities that she was able to see a way forward: "My creative and personal relationships were heavily intertwined, and I knew the only answer was to part ways with all of the people and comforts that I'd known for the better part of a decade and start again." Alongside making changes in her personal life, HiRUDiN saw Austra taking an entirely different, free-spirited approach to making a record. Seeking out all new collaborators, she booked three days of sessions in Toronto with improv musicians she'd never met before. They included two thirds of contemporary classical improv group c_RL, the cellist and kamanche duo Kamancello, kulintang ensemble Pantayo, and a children's choir.

Accumulating a vast and vibrant mass of source material, Austra then holed up in a studio in the Spanish countryside and took a collage approach to sampling, arranging, writing and producing to reveal the songs that would form the album. "I found myself really enjoying the role of producer for this record," she says, "directing and arranging a very disparate array of parts and people and feeling strong in my own conviction for what I wanted it to sound like." HiRUDiN additionally saw her work alongside co-producers for the first time, Rodaidh McDonald and Joseph Shabason, and she brought in David Wrench and Heba Kadry to mix and master the record respectively. "It was incredibly liberating and a huge learning process to work with so many different people," she says. "I felt completely revitalized."

While Austra's third album, Future Politics, was concerned with the external power structures that shape society, HiRUDiN points inward. It traces a deeply personal journey towards regeneration, dealing with the fallout of toxic relationships, queer shame, and insecurity along the way. Named after the peptide released by leeches that is the most potent anticoagulant in the world, HiRUDiN is about the importance of healing the self, letting go of harmful influences, and finding the power to rebuild through exploring your innermost desires. It reaps the rewards of Austra's leap into the unknown, in her most introspective yet inventive statement to date.

Playground Music Playground Music
2020-05-13