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In Praise of Album Covers

While the topic of album covers is obviously not film (or even moving-image media), I do think it speaks to concerns in film studies about media convergence, obsolete forms, and the open-ended relation of images to sounds.  I haven’t thought about the album cover as an artform for a long time, but I was struck recently by the Dum Dum Girls’ new release, Only in Dreams.  Had I not bought this album on vinyl, I don’t think I would have any appreciation for it.

The music itself on Only in Dreams is a disappointment.  The lyrics are vague and awkward, filled with pronouns and lazy rhymes (at one point Dee Dee, the band’s creative force, rhymes “right” with itself.)  Nearly every song has exactly the same midtempo, backbeat-heavy rhythm that groups use when they want to sound like the Beatles.  You know this beat when you hear it (see Nirvana, the Wonders).  Eight of the ten tracks on Only in Dreams repeat it.  Dum Dum Girls’ first album, I Will Be (from last year) also used that pulse a lot, but in fresher ways.  It felt like a groundwork for playing with varied tempos, thicker song structures, sharper guitar hooks, and meatier lyrics.  Songs had a sense of humor (“Oh Mein M,” “Jail La La”) and a surprising emotional depth (“Lines Her Eyes,” “Everybody’s Out”).  Only in Dreams sounds more like a clockwork imitation of 1960s  British beat bands and girl groups than a renewal of their spirit.

I Will Be, however, doesn’t have a very interesting cover.  The cover of Only in Dreams is phenomenal.  And it’s phenomenal in a way that needs the enlarged scale of a long-play record sleeve to be seen and felt as phenomenal.  (Which is why I don’t think a picture of the cover would be helpful here.)

The cover depicts a young woman, alone on a bed, in an empty white-walled room.  She is sitting up and lying down at the same time.  It’s a simple double-exposure trick, exploited as far back as spirit photography, and frequently used in movies (like Ghost and Insidious) to give characters an insubstantial body, as in a dream-state or when some supernatural power is at work.  What I find entrancing about Only in Dreams, though, is the way that the double-exposed figure opens into a whole archaic and untouchable world.  It stirs an atmosphere that (crucially for album covers) brings to light features of the music I wouldn’t otherwise note.  The album’s primary themes–loneliness, confusion, and a weightless presence of death–are front and center.

Typically, double-exposures rely on a contrast between a hazy quality in the ghostly figure and a stable definition of the surrounding space: faint blurs sit over and above sharp lines and well-defined textures.  But the space of Only in Dreams is itself liminal and blank.  The picture lacks any hard edges–either in the bed-covers, where we might expect to see folds or a print pattern, or in the border between the dark floor and the white wall.  Shapeless shadows saturate the room; the effect is partly that the woman and the album title seem to slightly glow, but the view of the scene is so lacking in definition that we can’t tell if these shadows come from the room or from an underexposed shot.

This means that the woman’s status as double-exposure doesn’t really set her apart from the rest of the room.  Instead, she rests on the endpoint of a whole visual continuum of opaque uncertainty.  Moreover, neither exposure of the woman is more substantial than the other.  It’s impossible to discern a “real” figure from a superimposed “dream” or “ghost” figure.  I would expect the woman lying down to be the real one, but I would also expect some confirmation of this with a weightier image.  I’m denied the confirmation.  I can see right through both of them to the wall.

Adding to the uncertainty is the color.  The entire layout is soaked in a monochrome mauve tint.  Album covers often have simple color schemes, but the colors tend toward an unfiltered purity that makes the album look like a painted object.  The color of Only in Dreams, as tint, is instead part of an obscured view of the scene.  The matching back-cover and sleeve (in solid mauve) make the world of the photograph seem to radiate outward, rather than appearing separate from or subservient to the rest of the design.  The font of the band’s name hovers beside the body of the sitting figure, silver and overflowing with calligraphic ornamentation that nearly smothers the small angular album title below it.  The whole thing looks like a dust jacket from a Victorian-era ghost story, making it effectively unclear whether the woman in the picture is dreaming  or dead.

This set of careful choices creates an indistinct dread that’s easily missed in any other form, precisely because the point of the picture is to be unclear.  At a small scale of view, or from a distance, I would merely get the sense that I was missing further details.  The cover’s haziness needed to lay itself open to my inspection.  I needed to play with it to find where the definition of the scene stopped and the grain of the picture began.  Had I bought this on CD, or seen the tiny icon of an iTunes download, I wouldn’t have been hailed to scrutinize it.  My wonder at this cover emerged from physically holding the album in my hands and gazing at it.

The ability to dwell inside an album like this, of course, is an anachronism.  Vinyl is thought to only persist as a status symbol–I only bought the album in this form because it came with a free digital download and cost nearly the same as the CD.  For the vast majority of music I own, I simply don’t care about the cover.  Because I’m almost always doing other things while I listen to music, I rarely have occasion to look at the artwork.  There is something in the album’s potential to overhwhelm me–not the music’s potential, but the album’s potential–that’s lost in these listening habits.

These habits were clearly possibly already in cassettes, with their Walkman portability and their barely-visible cover and foldout reproductions: my first piece of musical property was a faceless Memorex tape someone had made me of two Michael Jackson albums.  So the loss isn’t about a distinction between analog and digital storage.  It’s more a matter of severing a two-sided musical object that makes for a specific listening experience, the visual and the aural mutually defining each other.  As a young teen, my preferred mode of listening to albums (especially ones I’d just bought) was alone in the living room, through speakers, while flipping through the CD booklet.  When I was given an old turntable for my bedroom and started collecting LPs, that habit became a regular series of revelations: the music just made more sense this way.

The more control we gain over our music in its adaptable compactness, the more the album itself feels like an anachronism.  As the album slips into irrelevance, so slips the album cover, until it hardly seems to exist to the music-buying (or pirating) public.  This has strangely translated into an unfortunate lack of reverence for the experience of music.  It’s as if I’m sometimes afraid to let it exist for its own sake, as if my control over it demands that it be serving a definite purpose at every second that I hear it.  Musicians, designers, and record companies obviously still care about covers.  Ideas are considered, graphic artists are paid, and ink is printed, even as it makes less fiscal sense than ever before.  Sales don’t go up with striking cover art.  Browsing a store is hardly the default model of purchasing music, so why bother designing a cover to get attention?

Yet, like music videos (also arguably an anachronism at this point), there is something beyond advertisement or product differentiation that goes into them.  Holding a musical object in my hands, looking into it, being overwhelmed by it, has a power of its own that need not be incidental to the power of the music.