Sunday, September 20, 2015

My Take: Cover Art - More Than Meets The Eye

They say you can't judge a book by its cover. Well, what about albums?

I like to think of myself as a rational person, and even though music is a largely subjective experience, there are certain things that go a step beyond in terms of how ridiculous they are. But there are certain things that even I cannot escape, and one of those is letting my opinion of albums get colored by their cover art. It is a stupid phenomenon, I realize, but I think it's one that is far more common than it should be.

I was just recently placing an order for a few albums to celebrate an occasion, and as I was doing this, there was one album in particular that was causing me great pain. Without naming it, and thereby shaming the band, it is a recent album that is currently very high on my list of favorites, but it is also one that features some of the worst album art (cover and booklet) that I can remember recently from a band on a real label. The art doesn't fit the music, or the title, and much of it looks like it was made using the first iteration of Photoshop on an early 90s Tandy computer. (That reference is for anyone who feels old, despite not being so)

But why should the cover art affect the way that I think about the album, and make me hesitate about hitting the purchase button? The idiom that started this column is indeed true (which I know both as a reader and author), and it should carry over to music. There is nothing about the album art that makes the music any worse, nor does it make me enjoy listening to it any less. The only manner in which it is an issue is when it is sitting in my collection, on my shelf. And therein lies the rub.

For those of us who still enjoy collecting physical albums (my collection is small - I only grab my few absolute favorites each year), there is a degree to which our thinking is skewed by that little urge that lives inside us to be proud of our collections. Showing off a collection used to be a thing, and probably still is, and that is where lousy art becomes a real issue. Albums like the one that sparked this discussion are difficult to embrace with open arms, because I would almost cringe if I had to pull it off the shelf and put it in someone else's hands. An ugly album immediately conjures negative thoughts, and given my particular tastes in music, I need all the help I can get.

But what makes good album art?

That is a question that once again comes down to subjectivity. For me, I go in the direction of preferring album art that resembles actual art. I love covers that are either old works of art that have been re-purposed, or are created to give that effect. A cover like Slayer's classic "Reign In Blood" is an example of what I'm looking for, or Celtic Frost's "To Mega Therion". It could be said that I'm a bit of an art snob, but I get no pleasure from much of the traditional rock and metal art, with tacky band photos and drawings of shirtless warriors and giant dragons. Metal, in particular, bothers me, since I am in no way connected to the traditional image of what a metal fan should be, or should love.

So when an album comes along that matches great music with great art, as Ghost just did with "Meliora", it reminds me of just how much of the package is missing when the art isn't given enough care. There's no going back in time, and digital music is going to continue expanding its market share, which is just going to make album art even less important. That's a shame, because those of us who truly love music are in it for more than a quick file to throw on a phone. We love the entire experience, and we still buy albums for more than just those digital reproductions of the songs.

We love album art, because it gives us a deeper insight into the music, and the people behind it. Great album art can make a record even better, by pointing us in the right direction. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to do that nearly as often as I would like.

And to circle back to the start, no, the lousy art did not stop me from buying and loving that album.

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