And so, welcome to "Undercover," a new column where we'll explore/drool over/argue about music packaging, as well as taking the occasional detour into unrelated waters.
Sad to say, we're much more likely to discover a new band online than in a record store these days. This puts more pressure on the cover, which in its thumbnail state has to convey immediately all of the cultural signifiers that indicate what genre of music it contains. Each new release on the iTunes storefront has 75 pixels square to catch your attention as you scan the screen for cues to your particular taste: gold chains and Parental Advisory stickers for rap, warlocks and barren trees for metal. No prizes for what type of music ten-gallon hats and horses indicate.
I'm always interested in covers that actively confound the audience's expectations, though. Not intentionally shocking covers, such as Royal Trux's Sweet Sixteen (1997) (my advice: don't look at this before lunch after lunch ever.) And not willfully challenging covers from willfully challenging artists, either (Roy Harper's Flashes From the Archives of Oblivion, 1974) might as well have been titled Career Suicide with that cover, but what else should we expect from an artist who, in the words of his bio, "stands [defiant and] proud as if chiseled from belligerent granite"?)
Nor do I mean covers that cause arguments and discussion primarily because they don't look like an album cover is 'supposed' to look; for example, New Order's Waiting for the Siren's Call (2005) or Spiritualized's Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (2012). These sleeves are fascinating mainly because we can't fathom presenting these ideas, let alone their being selected, but followers of these bands already know to expect artwork that challenges expectations.
What's more interesting to me is a sudden visual shift, such as Norah Jones' recent Little Broken Hearts, which broke a streak of six completely unassuming covers with a sudden descent into gritty Russ Meyersville. The sleeve and its note-perfect retread of the film poster to B-movie 'classic' Mudhoney heralds Jones' about-face to a darker musical direction, and probably led to Norah's mom checking in to see if everything was okay. While the rest of the world scratches their heads at this sudden swerve, a quick look through the forums shows that Jones' fans seem unfazed — as long as she appears on the cover, it seems, all is well.
On the other end of the spectrum—probably the polar opposite end—drone project KTL's latest release, V, reveals a more subtle musical shift but an equally dramatic visual change. While ambient, electronic, and metal influences all come into play in the duo's sound, their previous four sleeves have many of the graphic hallmarks of doom/black metal artwork: distressed textures, a somber palette of brown, black and gold, and as the focal point of each sleeve, the band's simultaneously delicate and ominous cruciform logo. That logo appears again on V in a radically different form, overlapping jewel tones against a stark white background. Artist Mark Fell kindly took some time to discuss the design with me.
Did the artwork stem from discussions about direction with the band, or was it more of a personal response upon hearing the music?
The artwork came about in response to experiencing the music. I kind of perceived it as a series of overlapping spectral components. Although most music could be understood in this way, something about the pieces on V seemed to focus on that quality.
Did you wonder how people would respond to the artwork?
I do think about how people will respond. But not in a simplistic way of "will they like it or not?" It's more about how the work becomes perceived "as a whole" including the music and sleeve.
One listen to V with its cleaner tones makes it clear how on target this approach was; still, it's a large aesthetic jump from the previous four records.
Yes, well, I was aware the previous sleeves were stylistically quite different. And I think that does cue one's experience of the music to some extent—either as a dark murky drone or sharp spectral layering. When I hear KTL, I experience it as this spectral thing—very colorful, etc. So it made sense to kind of frame the sonic component of the work in that way.
I guess some people may be unhappy about that and I guess that's just a matter of taste. I could ask Peter at Editions Mego if we can do a black and white version of the sleeve, perhaps...
Color, typeface, photography style — every aspect of music packaging is loaded with meaning. Any change from an established look and feel can feel like a betrayal, a bandwagon-jumping stylistic maneuver. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it's a reflection of a band's natural evolution, and that's when it becomes a crucial part of the musical experience, regardless of whether you interact with it in your hands or on a screen.