I recently read an article in the New York Times that discussed the shrinking of album artwork. The piece argued that elaborate cover art seems to be out of fashion, and its in place artists are opting for simple designs that can be fully seen on computers and iPods. The close-up of Lady Gaga’s face for Born This Way, and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s fly on a pill for I’m With You were cited as examples.
While cover-art certainly isn’t indicative of what the music is like, it does seem to be a lost art form. Has there been an album cover released in the past few years that has already become iconic? Pearl Jam’s cover for 2009’s Backspacer was pretty nifty with 9 different images from cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, but it didn’t seem to represent the music that was on the actual disc. The childhood portrait of Lil Wayne on the cover Tha Carter III is visually intriguing and tells an interesting story, but I always felt the typography seemed a bit off. The Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light seems too much like a throwback with its collage of portraits highlighted in different colors.
Perhaps the music industry and musicians themselves think that no one really cares, and they will only view it on their iPod (or perhaps not at all.) I’m not certain about anyone else, but I find it hard to listen to songs either on my computer (or iPod) if there is accompanying artwork to go with it. I recently started downloading the cover-art of albums whose covers I don’t have and then trying to import them into iTunes. It’s a long, laborious project and so far I’m only up to letter K. I feel much better listening to The Beatles on my computer if I can actually see the cover for Revolver.
Still, graphic designers might set some of the blame on simpler cover-art. As a former student in Graphic Design, clean and simple design with lots of white space tend to gain more favor by professors and those in the actual field. While the cover of Sgt. Pepper is certainly iconic, I’m not entirely sure it would be looked on as the artistic achievement it is, if it were released now. I can also most hear somebody suggest that, “there is too much going on, your eye doesn’t know where to focus!”
As a kid, I was totally transfixed by the cover-art of certain albums. It could sometimes defined the way I listened to particular albums. I bought The Clash’s “London Calling” after reading how great it was in a British Magazine in high school. The image of Paul Simonon smashing his bass and the Elvis Presley reference in the typography was one of the coolest things I ever seen. When it came time to listen to the disc I was slightly disappointed that the music didn’t match Simonon’s anger and frustration. What was this reggae shit? It’s supposed to be punk! (For the record, London Calling is one of my favorite albums of all time).
If album cover-art keeps “shrinking” as the Times referred to it, a valuable part of music will be lost. It’s just another casualty of the presence of digital music and furthers confirms my theory that music is becoming more and more of something to listen to in the background rather than actively listening to it for its own merits.