Back in the halcyon days of your local record shop, you’d go through the bin and find an album with something that catches your eye. Maybe it’s something provocative or out of character for the band, but one thing is sure — does the music actually fit the look?
There are important album covers that use severe artistic restraint — The Beatles’s White Album comes to mind — or go overboard in imagery — once again with The Beatles, this time with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Both design choices fit into the style of their respective album’s music.
Kanye West, love him or hate him, uses similar tactics. His early album cover styles included his Dropout Bear — but as his musical style diverged, so did what showed up on CD cases and vinyl sleeves. It began with 808s & Heartbreak and the photo of a solitary deflated heart-shaped balloon against a gray background. That simple image describes the minimalist electronic sound and melancholy lyrics of the album.
His follow-up, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, maintains a small amount of this modesty with the all-red background — but the cover images themselves vary wildly. One is a painting of a woman in a black tutu with a glass. An alternate cover image is a crude portrait of Kanye with a nude woman-phoenix — something you would not find in a hip-hop album cover. But this is Kanye West, and the albums he’s released since MBDTF have cover styles that shift with his mercurial personality.
Simplicity in album cover design can be either iconic or confusing. You have the greats, like the Warhol banana from The Velvet Underground & Nico, or the cover that launched a thousand t-shirts — the black and white visual representation of a pulsar from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. Both are pop culture emblems with a less-is-more approach that stick to the tunes.
That is not the same for all album s. Take Deafheaven, a metal band from San Francisco, CA, for example. Their sophomore effort Sunbather found a top spot in many best-of lists in 2013. The songs on the album, an abstract metal by-way-of shoegaze, forms the idea of your generic black metal cover art — black and blue hues, perhaps a skull or graveyard.
This is what makes the Sunbather cover design such a stark difference from their music. It’s a slight gradient of pinks with the letters of the title reduced to a barely-legible shape. It is very polarizing to metal fans.
An even more misleading crossroads between sound and art comes from Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. Many of her fans’ first introduction to her leftfield synthpop comes from the songs “Genesis” and “Oblivion” made popular by the critically-acclaimed album Visions. The whimsy in her voice, driving beat and synths on those tracks make for a dreamlike vibe.
However, when you look at the cover art for the album, it reveals a rather nightmarish image. In Boucher’s own description, the cover is a pastiche of Bosch mixed with Mesoamerican art, as can be seen by the lovely skull at the center. The top and sides are framed in Cyrillic, faux-Japanese and made-up glyphs. An experimental mix of lines, ribbons and shapes surround a mysterious eye from the center to the bottom. Is the art evocative of Grimes eclectic musical style? For a diehard fan, yes. To the regular eye, there is no way you could marry her voice to that image.
Next time you’re at a music store or looking through your digital library, don’t let the first impression fool you. That quirky or bland artwork might lead to something your ears and eyes will view differently, but you can still groove to.