Initially, albums came in unadorned paper sleeves and solely acted as delivery mechanisms for the music inside. Once Alex Steinweiss seized the untapped promotional opportunities of the record cover in the 1940s, album art became integral to the experience of music, driving sales and building stronger emotional ties between artist and audience. Forty years into the increasingly expressive visualization of music, and at the very height of their popularity ("bigger than Jesus", Lennon inadvisedly quipped months previously), the Beatles dropped their eponymous bombshell.
Anything Beatles-related has been exhaustively examined by wiser people than I, so I won't retread their steps here. What interests me is the stripping away in order to make a larger artistic statement. Their first sleeve without a photograph of the band on the front, it is not surprising to learn that McCartney refers to The Beatles as "the tension album… Never before had we recorded with beds in the studio and people visiting for hours on end: business meetings and all that. There was a lot of friction during that album. We were just about to break up, and that was tense in itself." As subtle as the cover's embossed type is, floating on a glacial sea of white, it shouts at neon-sign volume, enough.
This sentiment was echoed by The Damned, discussing their Black Album (1980), generally acknowledged as the first sleeve to take inspiration from The White Album in title and design. Drummer Rat Scabies: "I was so sick about the debates of what we should have on the front of it. I said, 'put the thing in a plain black sleeve and we'll have a go at The Beatles and The White Album.'" Though the two bands have little in common (understatement alert), they share a weariness with everything about being a musician that doesn't involve playing music.
Since the Damned, there have been numerous Black, and White, Albums. If album art, like film posters and book jackets, help set the stage and our expectations before our first taste, the conscious simplicity of these covers speaks volumes about what the artist wants you to know about them.
Sometimes the subtext is: this is a serious piece of art which transcends gratuitous decoration.
Sometimes, it's a knowing wink and a repudiation of the overt marketing of music. These sleeves are the more colorful nieces and nephews of The White Album.
And sometimes, the sleeve conveys the artist's worldview by following in iconic footsteps. Peter Saville's Joy Division sleeves seem to have set up a framework for like-minded bands to follow (this is the level of conspiracy theory that I busy myself with).
Whatever their motivation, there's one undeniable benefit to these simplistic designs. As artwork is crushed into thumbnails, the details we might pore over on a gatefold LP smear into oblivion.
For more on The Beatles, thebeatleswhitealbum.org is a fantastic resource.