I spent a dreamy hour in London’s National Portrait Gallery recently with my own personal, qualified art historian – my mum. She bought a huge additional experience to my time in there. Instead of just staring ahead comparing the painting talents of all those greats to my own scrapings at A Level, I learned about the symbolism in each painting. For example, if you see a lily in certain Victorian paintings, you’re actually seeing more than a flower. It could be interpreted as purity, virginity or even majesty. Knowing this, you start reading into the character in the painting, then the work begins to open up to your own interpretation. Nice.
It tugged on my psyche about art and music, how much they’re interlinked. Musicians and artists have been teaming up on album covers for years – Peter Blake’s cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was so detailed and thought out that it had its own explanation in the album cover notes. Warhol collaborated with The Velvet Underground and Nico, of course, and Banksy designed Blur’s Think Tank. One of my favourite sleeves is The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis: Bold As Love – a colourful, spiritual introduction into what you’re about to listen to… there’s something quite alluring about that.
Likewise, Björk’s Vespertine is so delicate and clean – the exact sound of the record – delicate perfection. It’s a wonderful fusion. For me, the strange covers are the ones where the art doesn’t fit the music in any way. I’m just going to leave the cover of Led Zeppelin III here with you. That, to me, makes no sense. Neither does the artwork for Spiritualized’s Sweet Heart, Sweet Light: “Huh?” inside a green octagon. Music of such depth iconified by what looks like a toothpaste brand.
Does it matter though? Does it ruin the album for you? Or do you end up liking the artwork if you love the music? There is still symbolism within cover art. So much so that conspiracy theories reach far and wide regarding some sleeves. Google “Abbey Road Paul Is Dead” and you’ll see what I mean. Michael Jackson’s Dangerous has its own mini World Wide Web dedicated to theorising and interpreting. Designed by artist Mark Ryden, a thousand symbols could be read into this cover: the upside-down globe, a figure looking much like PT Barnum, MJ looking through a mask… they’ve all been read as signs of Jackson commenting on the Illuminati.
Even in the streaming age, bands still see the artwork as a vital part of the package. Bernard Sumner told me recently that he was thrilled to work alongside Peter Saville again on the artwork of the latest New Order record Music Complete. They concentrated on the design looking good not just on vinyl but also on a backlit phone screen. How times have changed. Wouldn’t it be great to have a permanent gallery of our own to show all these masterpieces side-by-side? Maybe with a listening post too for that multi-sensory experience. Now there’s an idea for the next Mayor of London. Danielle Perry @danielleperry
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