Before going any further, you should probably know that I tend to like dark music. Like, very dark music. It has the ability to throw the conscious world against the wall like a pile of rags, exposing the inner life of existence, the emotions that swirl in hues and ever shifting forms behind our eyelids.
I hear music in my head all the time, and sometimes, just sometimes, when I hear it, those amorphic colors and shapes coagulate into the image of an album cover. Here are some of those:
Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral (1994)
It is rare to find an album cover that seems as if it was composed by the music itself, as if the vibrations layered the canvas in paint. But that is how I feel about this work, and have for almost 30 years. It is devastating. It is visceral. It feels like the intricate fabric of samples that Trent Reznor wove together to create one of the best albums of its time. It is gorgeous.
Translated into Japanese, 151a is a play on the words "ichi-go ichi-e" which means "one time, one place," referring to the unrepeatable nature of a moment. It is a reminder to cherish the times that we have, because they will never come again. Now, think about that while you look at this image of a young girl riding a tiger looking utterly and completely over it. The illustration is beautiful, radiating energy, light and life, but there she is, just looking... well... bored. I look at the treatment of the album title as a first prize ribbon, an ironic award for this young girl who has clearly moved well past the idiom, "ichi-go ichi-e."
This album cover is beautifully disturbing. It is a carefully designed composition, throne textures matched to robes, autoharp's hues mirrored by crafted fabrics and clamps... wait, clamps? Yeah, that is what is so damn disturbing about it. By exposing the set, the C-stands, studio and strings, the whole composition looks fragile and exposed, like it is about to fall apart. Take that and Douglas Dare's uncomfortable stare from atop his centered throne and you end up feeling like the naked one.
This is a Photograph (2022)
This is a photograph. It is a photograph of Kevin Morby, a force pulling hard at the textured walls, the old family pictures, and tower speakers standing to either side. I feel implosion, compression, as if he has taken all this within himself, head down, and is actively composing the album it represents. Morby has said that he selected this image because he didn't want to be the focal point, but what I see is a singularity.
I've always been a fan of this style of collage art, mixing representational images with emotion-invoking patterns. I find my eye dancing across the album cover, creating a narrative around this woman's portrait. It is a story of love, memory and violence. A ballad of loss and lost identity. But in this loss there is the beauty of re-creation, of the infinite interpretability of abstraction.
Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
This album has quite possibly my favorite lyric of all time. "Can't believe how strange it is to be anything at all." And the album cover, it is the peculiarity, the strangeness of it, that resonates. It is an old penny arcade postcard depicting two bathers in unnatural poses, almost reminiscent of the Sieg Heil salute, which would not be out of the question given the album's references to The Diary of Anne Frank. In the background, bodiless heads float just above the water, staring out of the image. And the woman's face has been supplanted with a drumhead. It is dehumanizing. It is indeed strange to be anything at all.
Telefon Tel Aviv
Fahrenheit Fair Enough (2001)
Truth be told, I used to hang out with Telefon Tel Aviv in Chicago, but I am not going to claim to have a deeper understanding of this album cover. The album has no lyrics. The art is abstract. It is almost like an experiment with light and iris, all treated as if it were on an old television with poor resolution. For me, this invokes a feeling of nostalgic warmth, a soft glitch within my memories.
What Would the Community Think (1996)
When asked about creating the cover for her album out of an old postcard, Chan Marshall (Cat Power) said, "It's no big deal, I just cut out the center of her face and put mine on top. It made it look more real." I don't have anything else to add to this.
Deltron 3030 (2000)
There is perhaps nothing more humbling than seeing the past's versions of the future. This photograph is of the Perisphere from the 1939 World's Fair. The Fair's Theme: "The World of Tomorrow," a utopian city of the future. And while I love the modernist aesthetic of the architecture as well as the monochromatic high contrast treatment of the photograph, it is a reminder that Del, in his own playful dystopian way, is building a version of the future through music and message and will be subject to the same criticism as the Perisphere. I still love the album though.
Art of the Album is a regular feature looking at the craft of album-cover design. If you'd like to write for the series, or learn more about our Clio Music program, please get in touch.