Why David Bowie’s new album cover is a masterstroke
So it’s just a white square with text over an old image, is it? Think again – The Next Day’s cover makes you use your mind
This is a RECORD COVER. This writing is the DESIGN upon the record cover. The DESIGN is to help SELL the record. We hope to draw your attention to it and encourage you to pick it up. When you have done that maybe you’ll be persuaded to listen to the music – in this case XTC’s Go 2 album.
The Hipgnosis-designed sleeve for XTC’s Go 2 album is, famously, an essay about the design of the cover itself, and how it is intended as a marketing trick. As the music industry has shifted from analogue to digital, the words have subtly shifted. “This is a CASSETTE COVER” was joined by “This is a COMPACT DISC COVER”.
The digital edition in iTunes? It says “This is a RECORD COVER”. It ought to have said something like: “This is an IMAGE EMBEDDED WITHIN AN BINARY AUDIO FILE.”
I mention it because I think it is one of the titles that illustrates how weirdly our analogue industries represent their products within a digital world. I’ve always said I’ll know that ebooks have come of age when the images on your computer or device to represent them aren’t artificially constrained by the shape that printed books are. There is no need for ebook covers to be tall and thin and hard to fit text on.
The album sleeve that has prompted me to write about this, of course, isDavid Bowie‘s The Next Day. Jonathan Barnbrook has written about his design, and it contains what I think is a beautiful sentence:
“We know it is only an album cover with a white square on it but often in design it can be a long journey to get at something quite simple which works and that simplicity can work on many levels – often the most simple ideas can be the most radical.”
I’ve seen criticism, of course, that you could knock up the final design in five minutes, but the process of getting there is intriguing to me. I can’t think of another artist who has taken one of their own iconic album artworks, and subverted it in this way. It is more usual to recreate the image, as the Beatles did with the 1969 photographs in Manchester Square, which echoed the cover of Please Please Me and which were used for the Red and Blue albums, or as Sir Peter Blake did with a 2010 version of Sgt Pepper.
Another criticism I’ve seen is the harsh contrast between “the fine-grain mono background and harsh ‘paint’ foreground”. Again I think this is an interesting mix of the analogue and digital. Let us not forget that Bowie’s 70s artwork wasn’t perfect in itself. The original UK vinyl issue of Ziggy Stardust featured a horribly obvious ugly cut-and-paste to change the catalogue number from the US edition – the production method encroaching upon design.
Whether this design thinking translates to mass appeal is another matter. Barnbrook says “we worked on hundreds of designs using the concept of obscuring this cover” but admits that “we understand that many would have preferred a nice new picture of Bowie”. The risk for older artists is that new material can never recapture their glory years – and choosing such an odd and aesthetically unappealing final image for The Next Day’s sleeve risks the accusation that the sleeve is as bland as the new material might be.
The fact that I still keep referring to it as a “sleeve” is telling. While there may still be a physical release of the album, many people will this week be listening to lead single Where Are We Now? on devices that represent the “sleeve” as a static image behind glass. There has been precious little innovation in the way that artwork is presented alongside digital records or books. Hack the Cover by Craig Mod was a fascinating essay looking at how to subvert the traditional expectations of the ebook cover, but few artists seem to be exploring similar possibilities with digital music files. Even the fact that most albums feature exactly the same artwork for every track seems a wasted opportunity.
Only time will tell how well the design and the album itself stand up against the rest of Bowie’s impressive catalogue. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if an artist who had spent so many years reinventing his image, helped us to reinvent our expectations of what album covers could be in a digital era?