more than meets the eye

albums and their images

In early 2013, consistently beloved NYC-based indie rock trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs announced the details of their upcoming fourth album “Mosquito”. One of the items released was a first glimpse at the record’s cover art: a CGI-rendered image of a large mosquito holding a crying baby in mid-air with the band’s name spelled out along the bottom in a font reminiscent of the “Goosebumps” series. The response to the cover was less than enthusiastic: “I’m excited, but that’s got to be one of the worst album covers of all time,” stated one fan. Coverage in the build-up to the album’s release was constantly burdened by jokes about artwork, as the undeniably odd image became everyone’s mental picture when thinking of the record. Once “Mosquito” finally came out, critical and fan reception was lukewarm at best, and it’s largely considered the weakest Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. Looking back two years later, “Mosquito” had quite a few excellent songs on its tracklist, certainly more than it was given credit for, which begs the question: did the album’s cover affect people’s interpretation of the actual music?

By itself, music is strictly an audio-only form of entertainment. But many listeners, consciously or subconsciously, employ some sort of visual when enjoying music. Sometimes, the mental image one associates with a song comes from a music video, visually descriptive lyrics, or a moment in their life when they heard the piece. More often than not, however, people imagine (or physically see) the artwork from the album the song is found on. This, in turn, can alter our musical experience as a whole – sometimes quite significantly. The shapes, colors, objects, and styles on the front of a band’s CD or linked to a digital file have the potential to leave an impression on a listener before they even hear the song.

For proof of this phenomenon, all one has to do is look back through music history and how artists, deliberately or not, used album artwork to help convey the meaning of their music. Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic “Axis: Bold of Love” featured a cover as trippy and colorful as the music was. The sexually-suggestive photo that adorned the Rolling Stones record “Sticky Fingers” matched the raunchiness of the album’s sound. The rebellion behind the Clash’s “London Calling” is made tangible by the picture of Paul Simonon smashing his bass onstage. This practice is still prominent today, from the minimalist artwork of “Yeezus” to the glossy-yet-glitchy design on the front of the new CHVRCHES album.

As you can see, album covers can directly and purposely reflect the ideas behind a record. However, there is also a subliminal effect artwork can have on music fans, which mainly has to do with the colors being used. Psychologists have proven that different pigments can trick our brains into feeling certain emotions, meaning the colors we see can change our mood all on their own. For example, the color yellow can represent optimism, friendliness, emotional fragility, or anxiety, depending on the context.

This correlation between color and feeling certainly applies to the music world as well. For instance, orange evokes sensuality. Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” boasted a plain, stark orange cover that helped play into the listener’s sense of passion when hearing sex-driven songs like “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” or “Pyramids.” Similarly, all three of Nicki Minaj’s studio albums have prominently featured pink in both the artwork and the name; as pink can indicate both sexuality and femininity, the use of these palettes matched the moods and messages behind her music.

As illustrated by the “Mosquito” example described above, an ugly, boring, and/or distasteful album cover can hinder the enjoyment of the music it’s meant to symbolize. As good as the music may be, the mental image in the person tuning in can override their sense of satisfaction, if it’s bad enough. Dozens of decently good albums have suffered because of this concept, including Animal Collective’s “Centipede Hz”, Two Door Cinema Club’s “Beacon”, and the often-mocked Metallica & Lou Reed compilation “Lulu”. In the case of each of these albums, some followers developed a negative perception of what was to come even before the actual release date, and the music was at least partially overlooked by media and fans alike because of the artwork. Accordingly, none of these records were hugely successful critically. Occasionally, if an album is truly stellar in quality, it can overcome poor artwork—think “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” or the David Bowie classic “Diamond Dogs”. Even then, one can only wonder if those records would be even more well-received had their artwork been improved.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; the same should apply to music. However, sometimes album artwork is so striking—either positively or negatively—that one can’t help but be influenced when listening. An excellent cover can help make a good album seem like a great one; a poor one can make a mediocre album seem terrible. Even as we move into a digital age, leaving behind the days of physical LPs and CDs, the image that pops up on your iPhone when streaming a song matters. It’s up to artists to continue putting effort into the visual accompaniments to their art in order to enhance their fans’ listening experience.