Music triggers sense memory like few other things. Certain tunes, phrases or melodies can take us right back to a specific place in time. Often we can even smell or taste those memories. How about, though, an immediate recall to the co-writer, percussionist or, and often times most importantly, the cover and layout artist? That’s a deeper dig and may speak to a slightly more thorough audience (read: “obsessed and fanatic”) but I suspect that album art ties into music more deeply and more often than even the most casual music fan realizes.
The cover and/or jacket art can many times be an expression equal to that of the music contained therein and no format more than vinyl wax allows for this expression to be beautifully emblazoned for a grateful audience! In so many cases the cover art is your first introduction to a piece of musical work. Perhaps it’s a tried and true favorite of yours and that depiction on the front keys you in to exactly what you are in for or maybe it pulls you toward the unfamiliar, thinking “what music sounds like THIS? I must know!”. Album art and packaging is the proverbial first impression and it carries much weight.
Whether it’s art done by the musicians themselves or work commissioned from “professionals”, it’s another level and avenue of expression. Iron Maiden, Alice Cooper, The Smiths, Black Flag, Pink Floyd and countless others wear their art on their sleeves. You can identify one of their albums across a crowded hazy room and the art is akin to the sounds you’ll find within the grooves. Some expressions may be less straightforward but no less impactful. The Beatles self-titled album (that’s “the White Album” to you and I) may be one of the most profound expressions in cover art. Here was a band at the extreme height of it’s powers and they needed only to issue an album with a completely white cover with 2 simple words printed across the front…THE BEATLES. It flew off the shelves. It tells us a lot though, admittedly some of it in hindsight. Let’s face it, the lads weren’t getting on that well at this point and burned a lot of calories to record a double album’s worth of material. Exhaustion likely played a role and a sense of “we’re done and over it” but on an even more significant, if not subconscious level, it seems to say “the goods are inside”. The music would do the talking. Everything they had to say could easily be found inside (not to mention 4 sweet headshot photos).
How about the completist’s jackpot, the Box Set???!!! Be carful not to get any drool on that 76 page hardbound book, the rare post cards or the limited edition album jacket found only in said set. This is when the archives are scraped and the deep dive of artifacts and ephemera is shared with the fans. Alternate art is abound, new interpretations as well as the unreleased original outtakes. These are great because often times we get a historical and tutorial perspective on the art. We get to spread our legs a bit and look at a work we may know very well in different perspectives. It’s hard to imagine Sticky Fingers with any other cover, but it too was a work in progress. Just when we thought we had all of the trivial facts memorized there’s a whole new batch we can impress our friends with.
Some covers and their accompanying packaging are events in and of themselves, a la Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while others can be simpler but no less impactful (e.g. Joy Division’s sound waves on Unknown Pleasures). How many times have we purchased an albums strictly on the cover art alone? Anyone who has knows that it doesn’t always work out but, at minimum, the art did IT’S job, it got you through the door.
The digital download, while convenient, can’t bring us any of this fulfillment. Plus, who said true musical experience was meant to be convenient? Can one even possess a digital download? Perhaps that’s a whole other conversation, but without being able to hold and pour over an album’s companion art I think it’s fair to say that a large and important portion of the experience is simply missed. This is true art, just as we might hang on our walls or scatter across our coffee tables. How lucky are we that while we listen to our artists play for us that we are able to embrace a physical counterpart designed specifically for that purpose.
Some of this may seem slightly heavy-handed but there are those of us that take these things deadly serious. There are new music fans discovering tunes every day, old and new, and that’s what makes true art beautiful…timelessness. A Black Sabbath album cover is as terrifying to someone who’s just seeing it for the first time as it was on the day it was released and just wait until they drop the needle and hear doom personified. withinIt must be held in one’s hand and engaged with. Hitting the “download” button holds none of that romance.