Death of an art form?

Last week the Royal Mail issued a set of ten souvenir stamps, each celebrating a ‘classic album cover.’ The collection, which features ‘some of the most potent graphic images of modern times,’ has been welcomed by many (including Led Zep’s Jimmy Page) but to me, it’s a sad reminder that album art is now seen as a relic – a once-great institution now only worth enjoying on a thumb-nail-sized adhesive; one that peaked decades ago – its glow casting a shadow over subsequent output.

Only recently, Peter Saville – the man responsible for Factory Records’ artwork – told the Independent on Sunday, ‘Cover art is now dead…’ Ouch. It’s true that the album art institution has faced battles: not only did it have to deal with its physical downsize (from Vinyl to CD) but the emergence of minidisk and MP3, and most significantly, the profusion of illegal downloading, have meant the production of credible, viable, even radical album art has become less of a priority for major record labels.

Cynics note the abundance of CDs on HMV’s shelves whose covers are less a product of Andy Warhol and more an OK Magazine photo shoot. However, they fail to recognise the plethora of innovative, thought provoking and sometimes interactive will-be classics that grace us with their presence.

Let’s take Blur’s Think Tank as an example: an album more recent than anyEMI featured by Royal Mail’s collection, its cover art comes courtesy of enigmatic street artist Banksy. The image, which is in his staple stencil-style, shows the embrace of a man and woman, each wearing old-school breathing apparatus – or is it? To be honest, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, and that’s part of the appeal. I appreciate many may not like the image, or any of his corpus for that matter, but this isn’t the point. Banksy, whether we like it or not, has an urban appeal that has captured a generation. Although less esteemed than Warhol, who created the iconic image on The Velvet Underground’s debut, he undoubtedly taps into the zeitgeist of the noughties; the image itself, as enigmatic and provocative as any seen in the ‘golden age’ of album art.

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ParlophoneRadiohead’s 2001 release Amnesiac marked a pivotal point in album art’s story. Rather than being released in the orthodox plastic box, the CD came in a hardback book whose pages were filled with the surreal illustrations of long time collaborator Stanley Donwood. Not only is the art featured fascinating in its own right – exhibitions of Donwood’s work have received glowing reviews in recent years – but it leaves the beholder with an impression that here, the art is far from secondary to the music; the images and music are inextricably connected; Amnesiac is not just a sonic experience, but a visual one also – a multi media package bound in a felt-finish book.

The same can be said of pop masters Bjork and Sigur Ros, whose albums are sought after as much for their cover art as their sounds. Both these Icelandic acts are artists first and last – for them the artwork is bound up in a work’s overall ‘package’ and no part of it is left to chance. Sigur Ros, until recently generated all their album art themselves. The works elicited discussion on their minimalist and mystifying composition, and offer a fascinating incite into the band’s psyche. Their last album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

used a picture by the acclaimed American photographer Ryan McGinley showing four nude figures running across a road. Despite the band claiming the picture echoes one of the album’s themes, ‘the celebration of the natural,’ high street retailers censored it – an action that thirty years ago would have instantly elevated it to ‘classic’ status.

Animal collective’s acclaimed 2009 opus Merriweather Post Pavilion has equally provocative album art. The cover design sounds simple – lines of bright green ovals on a purple and pink backdrop – but after a moment’s inspection its Dominoinventiveness is apparent. As we look at the design, the patterns change. The ovals ebb and flow as we pan across, creating an uncomfortably trippy, kinetic experience. The design is inspired by the work of Japanese psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka who earned his PHD studying visual perception. Posting on music blog Popdose, reviewer Talor Long says: ‘it appears to be in motion when we know it’s stationary. It’s an apt representation of the album’s duelling thematic components: fantasy versus reality, whimsy versus obligation, restlessness versus tranquillity.’ Again, we see modern, mainstream album art that supports its work’s musical content whilst innovating artistically – it deserves a place in the same album art canon as Sgt. Pepper’s and Dark Side of the Moon…doesn’t it?

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Of course, these are just a few isolated examples within a broad sweep of current mainstream album art. A richer vein of artistic prowess is to be found in the more left field market; a trawl through some of London’s backstreet record shops is likely to expose an even more iconoclastic and virtuosic artistic repertoire. Who said album art is dead?