As I was spinning Discreet’s excellent This Is Mine LP, I was again drawn to its rather visceral artwork and again, I really wished I hadn’t been. It just doesn’t work for me. It’s not that the image does not in some ways resonate with the album’s exploration of addiction and trauma, but rather that it’s just not a particularly pleasant image to look at – flies gorging on a piece of raw meat.
This got me thinking as to the importance of cover art more generally, and what makes it more, or less successful. The continued survival, indeed, renaissance of music in its physical form is driven by multiple factors. However, one key aspect is people’s desire to enjoy its materiality – to hold the record, to place it on the turntable, to read the lyrics, and to enjoy the artwork. The record is a physical embodiment not only of a band’s music, but also of its wider political and cultural values.
So, what makes a given piece of album artwork successful? On reflection, I think it is driven by three characteristics that move from those of immediate pleasure, to those that grow in depth as you immerse yourself in the music itself. First, it must have the visual clarity to impact and grab attention. Secondly, it must be aesthetically thought-provoking, in other words, priming the listener to consider what the album will sound like and what its lyrical concerns might be. And thirdly, it must speak to the artistic intent of the music that it visually represents, and that can, perhaps, only be fully realised once the listener is able to marry the art, the music, and the words together.
Each of these stages is important, and each develops a greater level of depth and appreciation for the listener. But clearly, not all artwork can satisfy each level equally and, obviously, everyone’s interaction with it will be different by degree. You can have a striking piece of art that seizes attention, but ultimately it doesn’t feel organically connected to the music itself. To be a truly successful album cover, I think the artwork must succeed on all three levels. So, what are the album covers that, for me at least, achieve those three aims? Five, in particular, came to mind.
First up is Surf Nicaragua (1988) by Sacred Reich. This is a record sleeve that is in many ways archetypal of the era. But it is a brilliantly executed example: with the shirtless, camo-clad figure surfing on a coffin lid whilst holding a cartoon bomb. It would be hard to argue that it is not a visually striking design, but it’s also a well-judged blend of the satirical and the serious, and inspires interest as to what will emerge when the needle hits the groove. And when it does, you’re not disappointed as the title track erupts and a keen eye is applied to US interventionism in Central America.
Our second stop is Lift Your Burdens High For This Is Where We Cross… (2004) by The Saddest Landscape. The stark simplicity of the sketched trees, the glimmering blue leaves, the brown paper texture backdrop, and the understated band logo, all combine to quietly dramatic effect. This in many senses is the perfect encapsulation of The Saddest Landscape’s music – explorations of dealing with life’s more overwhelming aspects, finding beauty in the everyday, and the cathartic pleasures of casting aside the weight of expectations to revel in the moment. A beautifully evocative cover.
Disconnecting (2006) by Sinking Ships is next in line. Now, I remember reading an interview with vocalist Danny Hesketh in which he expressed his disappointment at how Revelation promoted this record with quarter page advertisements of the album cover in the printed press. I’m sure he was right on the money in terms of how ineffective that largely was, but it was oddly exactly how I discovered Sinking Ships. Something about the sepia tinged black and white photography (an actual family photo rather than a stock image if I recall rightly) spoke to me and said you will like what this band has to say. And, remarkably, my inner voice was absolutely spot on, and the artwork was the perfect visual realisation of the band’s stirring melancholic hardcore.
We then move to Abolition’s politically charged self-titled LP (2011). Exploring themes of class dispossession, colonialism, and cultural commodification, Abolition burned briefly but brightly in the London hardcore community. And I always felt that the album’s artwork of a man striding into the urban fog, his terrier glancing back on what is left behind, spoke eloquently to the band’s priorities – breaking the shackles of the past to march towards a new future. One that we don’t know exactly what it looks like, but recognising that unless we seize the chance to change things, we never will. Admittedly, I’ve also always been a mug for a good picture of a lone man and his dog, but I like to think it goes a little deeper than that…
Finally, I will close with the cover from the Myteri / Procrastinate Split (2019) 12-inch. I think aesthetically this is one of the most beautifully packaged LPs in my collection. The level of love and attention focused on the artistic design by the labels (Alerta Antifascista, Halvfabrikat, Phobia and Nothing to Harvest) and the bands is pretty remarkable – even the etching on the B-side of a feathers and horns insignia works beautifully. The cover captures a vividly realised stag and a pheasant communing with one another, their shadows captured in seeping watercolours. Now both stags and pheasants are present throughout various mythologies, often used to denote immortality, and I think in this instance it is intended to represent the enduring friendship of the two bands, who toured extensively together. Indeed, this split 12-inch was recorded by both bands simultaneously in Procastinate’s hometown in Greece, which invests it with an authenticity that split releases can sometimes lack.
And so, while the whole coloured vinyl fixation leaves me rather cold, I don’t think the value of well-conceived cover art can be overstated – it serves to animate, enrich, and complete a band’s wider artistic vision.