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?