Nostalgia Dorks II, which I published in January of this year, was my lamentation of the fall of music as hobby for me. At the time, I was deep in the shuffle, only starting to realise I was no longer engaged with what was going into my ears. Music, with all its scenes, characters and stories had been reduced to moods and functions by Spotify’s machines: an upbeat playlist for my jog, a less intrusive one at my desk at work. I shuffled my Shazam playlist, too, believing I was prospecting for new music, but nothing was sticking.
In the months that followed, I took some steps to wake myself from this mindless stupor. It did matter to me. I didn’t do anything too drastic – I tried a little harder to listen to albums in their entirety, put old bands on my iPod via iTunes, read an article here and there. The results have been noticeable and I’ve bonded with friends who are on the same wavelength. Ultimately, my goal is to make sure technology works for me rather than the other way around.
In February, an old favourite band of mine, School of Seven Bells, put out SVIIB, their fourth (and probably final) album. It’s a powerful record, arranged and released by lead vocalist Alejandra Deheza in the aftermath of the passing of Ben Curtis, the band’s other half and her ex-partner, to lymphoma. After reading Noisey’s article on Deheza and Curtis’s relationship and the making of SVIIB, I couldn’t stop listening! I’m so lucky I got to see them before
Besides listening to more music, I also went to see more bands live: I took in Beach House’s soaring melodies at the Opera House and Grimes’s manic energy at the Enmore. Other highlights were Alvvays (Goodgod Smallclub), Olympia (Newtown Social Club), Dappled Cities (Oxford Arts) and an intimate set by Julia Jacklin’s at Red Eye Records. Coming up next are Chairlift and Blood Orange, and my wallet is ready should Solange announce a tour.
I also started putting CDs from my old collection in my car. I call it (fittingly, very dorkily) my ‘Feature Album’. So far, I’ve revisited Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? by Of Montreal, All Hour Cymbals by Yeasayer and Pip by Otouto. I’m currently back on Of Montreal and their seventh album Sunlandic Twins. The lively basslines and bombastic vocal parts make for particularly good driving music.
Interestingly, what’s struck me most in this ‘Feature Album’ experiment is how nice it is to touch and feel album artwork again. These days, I rarely so much as glance at album artwork so it really takes me back. Back when I collected CDs, the album artwork would help me ‘get’ artists and Of Montreal is a great example. David Barnes is not only the brother of lead singer and principal songwriter Kevin Barnes, but the band’s full-time art director, too. His artwork has a huge impact, as noted by Emily Gosling for It’s Nice That:
Of Montreal [is] a band as renowned for the ludicrous, mesmerising pomp and glitter of their stage shows as their experimental, verbose and sexually charged paranoia pop. The shows frequently use circus-like levels of fantastical scenery and props… These visual aspects are mostly orchestrated by David, working with his brother Kevin… to try and realise the band’s odd blend of heavy-lidded, imaginative nihilism and pop power.
Album artwork also helped me connect bands to their larger scene. A good example of what I mean is the chillwave/dream pop movement (circa 2008-2010) when I went out and bought physical copies of albums like Seek Magic by Memory Tapes, Gemini by Wild Nothing, Life of Leisure by Washed Out, and No Way Down by Air France. Thinking about it now, it’s cool how strongly I connected their ethereal, lo-fi music with the muted palettes and nostalgic motifs of their album art (and still do). At one point, I even went out and made some chillwave artwork myself with my lomo camera.
I’m not sure if it’s empirically true, but it feels like this just doesn’t happen for me anymore now that album art has been reduced to a tiny square on my iPod’s small screen. Indeed, the importance of the album itself seems to be fading. There is data from the US, UK and France that suggests that playlists from music streaming services are slowly taking over as the main way we listen to music. You don’t even need an album to make a splash these days – just ask Vance Joy who won Australia’s Hottest 100 competition in 2014 without having released an album.
This all begs the question, does album artwork even matter any more? Does anyone else miss it? How, if at all, can it stay relevant? Here are two leads.
First, Vaporwave, which is a genre I’ve completely missed because I no longer lurk on Bandcamp and Soundcloud (not sure if it’s on Spotify as well). I’m not sure whether Vaporwave artists banded together to settle on these visual themes, simply happened to be on a similar wavelength, or fed off each other over a period of time. But when presented in the way Simon Chandler does in his article ‘Escaping Reality: the Iconography of Vaporwave’, Vaporwave seems like a fairly cohesive scene. Here’s an excerpt:
Vaporwave is a strange and singular genre. Not just because many of its most celebrated albums revolve around sampling corporate muzak and aging pop hits, and not just because its practitioners remain mostly anonymous…
The imagery of vaporwave… [includes] depictions of virtual plazas or neon-lit streets… [It] offers a deep window into the music’s central ideas and concerns… [its] critique of consumerism to its notion that society has locked itself in a nostalgic, media-generated bubble.
I particularly enjoy Chandler’s take on Vaporwave’s Hazy Skyline motif:
Even when vaporwave does seem interested in actual places, these places are never seen with any clarity or precision. Whether it’s the blurred skyline of Bl00dwave’s hotel vibes or the transparent metropolis of 2814’s 新しい日の誕生, the genre has an enduring love for fogging up urban environments and landscapes so that they’re only dimly recognizable.
As with almost every other theme in its visual repertoire, this vagueness and ambiguity could be read as another evasion of reality, an attempt to portray the world as indeterminate so as to avoid confronting it directly. Yet at the same time, the covers of a VANISHING VISION or DERELICT メガタワー also support the idea that this mistiness and fuzziness is a result of information overload, which clouds our perception of the world by bombarding us with too many voices and too many messages to be absorbed.
I highly recommend you checking out Vaporwave and all the weird and wonderful it has to offer. Here’s the article again: ‘Escaping Reality: the Iconography of Vaporwave’ (it includes embedded players so you can hear what Vaporwave sounds like).
Julia Jacklin provides a more interactive example of how to make album artwork interesting again in the digital age. To celebrate her debut album Don’t Let The Kids Win, Jacklin challenged fans via Facebook to a competition: “Do your best photoshop job on my album cover (keep it classy people) and I’ll pick the best one”. The winner got copies of DLTKW on vinyl and CD, a T-shirt and a tote bag! Above and below are some of her favourites, you can check out more at her Instagram. When I saw Jacklin play at Red Eye Records, I noticed she was wearing the same skirt as in her album cover – a PR job well-done, in my opinion, with album art front and centre.
I always have trouble ending these Nostalgia Dork posts because I’m cautious of falling into the cliched ‘back in my day’ trap. But the point of this series isn’t to mourn the good old days (cultural change is more or less out of my hands, anyway). It’s simply to say: “Hey, did you notice that this thing changed? What do you think about it?”. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading.
As always, get in touch with me @TimSpricht or via firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any feedback. I write intermittently, to keep up with this blog, subscribe to my newsletter at the top-right of your page.