Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back down to earth and album covers

And back to Evan Eisenberg:

Every mode of record listening leaves us with a need for something, if not someone, to see and touch. The adoration of the disc itself is one response (though this, as we have seen, answers other needs as well). But as records tend to look alike and one doesn't want to get fingerprints on them, in practice one adores the album cover, and this impulse (together with the science of marketing) is behind the importance of cover design in the record business.
The books that have been devoted to album art reproduce mainly rock album art. While classical covers (like those of adult pop and jazz records) generally settle for a straight photograph of the performer, rock covers indulge in fantasy, dreamy or nightmarish or both. Mirrored here is a distinction between the typical classical listener, who expects the musician to mediate between the private and public realms of music, and the typical rock listener, who cohabits with the musician in a world of private fancy. For the classical listener, the adoration of the cover becomes a kind of pure idolatry; for the rock listener, a pilgrimage through the looking glass.
For the rock collector it is a point of honour to own both jackets issued for Blonde on Blonde; the nude United Nations import cover of Electric Ladyland as well as the tamer domestic one; the full range of colours for Some Girls (which may have been a device to quintuple sales among cultists). That one of the greatest rock album of all takes its nickname from its snowy absence of cover art only proves the rule. The original design for The Beatles, the album everyone calls the White Album, was banned and the Beatles would accept no other. Anyway, inside there are portrait photographs and a big scrapbook-style collage, representing two major schools of rock art: the performer as pin-up (without his instrument) and the performer as intimate (who sends you snapshots of his private life). A third and preponderant school is represented by the Sgt Pepper cover: the star as fantast, dessing up in costumes the teenager can't afford (in either sense) to wear.

in order of appearance:

While the classical collector finds heavy shellac discs more cherishable than any kind of cover, the pop fascination with album covers has given them a status of art objects independent of their contents. The conceptual artist Cosmo scatters albums, with their plastic shrink-wraps intact, around his apartment as sculpture. A colleague known as Collete makes montages of album covers and jewellery enshrined in plexiglass (a second virginity). And children chew discs of bubble gum that come with tiny album covers instead of baseball cards. Pauline kael has written of the movie Cat People, 'Each shot looks like an album cover for records you don't ever want to play'. That is an insult, as intended, but only because of the 'ever'. For the highest praise of album art is that it finally renders the record unnecessary, as a perfect idol displaces the god it represents. From the musical or Mosaic point of view, that is why both are dangerous. They can become fetishes that make us deaf to the voice. ('Ears have they but hear not... They that make them shall become like them.') It must be admitted, thought, that if records are more reliable than musicians, album covers are more reliable still, specially on a desert island. In Stranded, Tom Smucker writes:
If I'm going to be on an island without a working phonograph, or with one I can count on only until batteries run down, then I'd like to be marooned with my beloved Pet Sounds by Beach Boys, preferably in the original mono version with the pictures from their Japanese tour on the back. Gazing at it, I could recall every cut, I've listened to it so often. Just having it near, I would be reassured.

Fetishism, as the cherishing of something reminiscent or redolent of loved one, seems the highest fidelity. But it is finally a kind of betrayal. The young moped-messenger in the film Diva, after secretly taping a recital by his adored soprano (who refuses to record because 'music comes and goes – you shouldn't try to hold it'), snatches from her dressing room, as a prescient afterthought, her silvery gown. We see this Jules later in his garage loft, slumped in a corner; her voice lights the vast space, her dress is wrapped shawl-like around him. His eyes make tears of joy and possible of shame. Later he slings the dress around his neck like an aviator's scarf, hops on his moped and, cruising avenue Foch, finds a whore – black like his beautiful soprano – who will wear the dress to bed. When he comes home he finds his apartment wrecked, this signal-ling the start of his misadventures. It must seem like retribution. Because he loved her voice too well and not well enough, he was not satisfied with hearing her voice on occasion but had to possess it; not satisfied with her voice, he must have her garment; not satisfied with her garment he must have a proxy body in it. And so he betrayed her.
The great Regency wit Sydney Smith once claimed that music was 'the only cheap and unpunished rapture on earth'. Gorodish Diva's Zen superhero, knows better. When Jules protests that his musical piracy was innocent, meant only for his own pleasure, Gorodish admonishes him: Il n'y a pas de plaisirs innocents.

Ceremonies of a solitary, "The Recording Angel", EVAN EISENBERG

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