Seeing What You Hear: The Importance of Album Artwork

From the Beatles flagship stroll across Abbey Road to the quintessential prismatic eclipse of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, album artwork has long been an intrinsic facet of the production process. Atop a more contemporary musical backdrop, Gemma Cockrell delves beneath the covers of Grimes, Flume, Lorde, and more, to explore the power of a beguiling binding and how an album’s cover can offer a glimpse of the story its music tells.

Though often considered a throwaway element of musical production, album artwork can offer an expanded visual element to an auditory creation. For the modern artist seeking exposure, the artwork is our first insight into their music. We may judge the art by its cover, and if unimpressed, put the release back on the shelf, and thus the importance of visual hooks in a sonic medium is indispensable. Many independent artists therefore design and create their own album art, taking complete ownership of the visual artistic direction of their music in order to create meaningful expressions which reflect the sounds and emotions within. Pairing the sonic with a vivid, graphic counterpart can add an extra dimension to a piece of music, and has been utilised by artists genre-wide over the years.

A notable example of this comes from the electro-pop empress Grimes, who is known for designing and creating all of her album artwork independently. This results in records which are entirely her own creation: lyrically, sonically, and visually. Her designs are always eccentric, abstract, and elaborate, whether that be the bold, lurid depiction of an seraphic alien on her 2015 album Art Angels, or the entirely contrasting dark and grayscale doodled skeleton on the cover of 2012’s Visions, which captures Grimes’ fascination with comic book culture. Both of these graphic manifestations embody the mood of their respective albums, inspiring another cutting layer of meaning and interpretation.

The cover of Flume’s 2016 full-length Skin and its depiction of an intricately designed foxglove in pink and purple hues is the product of artist Jonathan Zawanda, and another record that demonstrates the cogency of album artwork. With the smooth and modern digital design mirroring the album’s clean, futuristic electronica, it is clear Zawanda is a strong advocate for the relationship between music and art; believing in a reciprocal nature in which the two are subcutaneously linked and provide additional interpretation and weight to each other. “Visuals give a more tangible meaning to music, but music can likewise breathe new life into art and help people make sense of it,” he summarises pithily. Zawanda’s work with Flume fittingly earned him high acclaim, and he was awarded the ARIA Music Award for Best Cover Art in the album’s year of release. He was since nominated again for the award following his design work on Flume’s 2019 release, Hi This is Flume – a true testament to the power and plaudits of album artwork projects.

Such designs also have the potential to convey bold social statements, and Kanye West has never been an artist afraid of causing a stir. His 2010 release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was accompanied by five alternative covers inspired by the album’s brooding concept and painted by the American contemporary visual artist, George Condo. It’s official artwork depicts the rapper and a winged creature, which Condo describes as “a kind of fragment between a sphinx, a phoenix, and a haunting ghost” – all of which are nude. The image is an abstract representation of the dark nature of fame, a theme which West scrutinises in great detail throughout the album. In interviews following its release, Condo confirmed that the artwork was intended to be controversial, and that West wanted to release “something that will be banned.” To no surprise, this was exactly what happened, and the cover was prohibited from production in the United States and censored on streaming services the world over. “So Nirvana can have a naked human-being on their cover but I can’t have a PAINTING of a monster with no arms, and a polka dot tail and wings,” West exclaimed in a well-timed Twitter outburst, and it was later confirmed that the artwork was a deliberately planned publicity stunt.

The lurid album art for Blur’s The Magic Whip (2015) was inspired by Albarn’s introspective excursions to Hong Kong.

The artwork the Atlanta tycoon was alluding to was that of Nirvana’s iconic sophomore, Nevermind (1991) which depicts a naked three-month old baby boy, identified as Spencer Elden, swimming underwater beside a fish-hooked dollar bill. Cobain claimed to have conceived the idea whilst watching a television programme on water births with fellow bandmate Dave Grohl, and consequently one of musical histories most recognisable artworks was born. Though this was not without challenges as the band’s record label, DGC, were deeply reluctant to release the image. A dogged Cobain eventually accepted the placement of a censoring sticker over the inappropriate part of the image, but only if it read: “If you are offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile.” The result was a record that was as sonically and visually revolutionary as it was groundbreaking.

A contemporary example of a striking but considerably less controversial artwork comes from a band who were swept to fame in the wave of 90’s Britpop. The lurid album art for Blur’s The Magic Whip (2015) was inspired by Albarn’s introspective excursions to Hong Kong, where much of the albums recording took place. Designed by the band’s creative director, Tony Hung, the art portrays, in the words of the artist: “A sweet, daytime, English, summer product found in pastel shades, evoking visions of blue skies and green parks… now transformed into a buzzing neon sign rendered in hard lines and electric hues, found on any busy street in Mong Kok on a dark night.” The iconic stylised ice cream is accompanied by the band’s name and album title lit up in Chinese characters in the style of a neon alleyway bar sign. With similar Chinese allusions, the record earned its name following a firework display Albarn hosted for his friends amidst the writing process, where he found a wrapper for a Magic Whip’ firework. This poignant, sensical link between the LP’s title and lyrics, and its lurid artwork offers it a new layer of meaning and perhaps contributed to The Magic Whip’s success.

Another of music’s most iconic contemporary artworks comes in the form of Lorde’s stirring sophomore record Melodrama (2017), and its unmistakable hues of sapphire and cobalt. Here, Brooklyn visual artist Sam McKinniss transformed a photograph of Lorde into a vivid, abstract painting that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of a gallery. “Lorde had really distinct ideas of what time of day, where it would exist, and the time, and the colours all of which we talked about a lot,” McKinniss explained. The Auckland songwriters experience with synaesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses are blended together, has meant colour is an immensely powerful tool in her music and a key element in her experiencing of sound. She describes the album as “very intense colour-wise,” with sounds akin to the fluorescence of night-life, and this is reflected in the artworks colour palette where bright flashes of pink and yellow sit aside deep, dark midnight blues. The colours and sounds of the album are thus heavily tied to the young singers own experiences, and offer an added medium of meaning to an already electrifying body of music.

Finally, the emotionally raw and vulnerable efficacies of Frank Ocean’s adored album Blonde (2016), are perfectly visually represented by a photograph of the singer taken by the renowned German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. Here, Ocean is strikingly pictured with his left hand covering his face as if hiding tears, which has been interpreted as a visual interpretation of the phrase ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ the record’s former title before Blonde. An image of great vulnerability and honesty, the artwork captures the sentiment of the record almost as poignantly as its track-list, which features perennial hits like Pink + White and Ivy. Additionally, speculation surrounding the title being stylised as “Blond” on the album cover, rather than the traditional Blonde, has inspired theories of Ocean challenging the traditional tropes of manhood, as well as the duality of masculinity and femininity in his portrayal of emotions. A sublime body of music with the thoughtful artwork to match.

Album artworks are timeless, visual manifestations of pieces of music that serve as a portal into the artist’s creative world.’

Therefore, whether artwork is exquisitely beautiful or daringly controversial, it has the power to spark conversation in a way not unlike the music it holds within. As well as inspiring exposure, streams and sales, they are timeless, visual manifestations that serve as a portal into the artist’s world, as well as the creative process behind the music. So next time you’re listening to a record, take the time to contemplate its accompanying art, you might just uncover a whole new world of meaning.

Written by: Gemma Cockrell

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Ged Lawson via Unsplash. Article image courtesy of Future Classic via Facebook. Article image courtesy of Blur via Facebook.