This is what I thought when I saw the cover for Elvis Costello’s latest release, “Momofuku.” It’s not the worst cover ever, to be sure, but it’s also just not that good. Its rough and ready, stencil-like typography reminds me a bit too much of the kind of retail branding found in suburban shopping malls, and its somewhat horrific color combination evokes a humorous Hallmark card more than a rock album.
Compare that to his 1977 album, the irrepressible “This Year’s Model,” which featured a young, hyperkinetic Costello looking uniquely brash and five years ahead of his time. It’s not just the photograph that makes this cover, either. It’s also the way his scrawny and yet strangely aggressive silhouette sits against a brown background — somehow making brown seem modern. The oblique, sparsely tracked-out typography, suggesting sprocket holes on a roll of film, is a perfect complement to the actual camera. The whole package is like a offhanded yet potent visual punch.
The stark comparative quality of those two albums made me think of David Bowie’s “Reality,” released earlier this decade with what is probably the worst cover I’ve seen yet in the 21st Century. There’s just no explaining this bizarre cross-pollination between the inside front cover of a Japanese schoolgirl’s notebook and a graduate thesis from the most annoying M.F.A. candidate ever. It is, I suppose, meant to evoke something otherworldly, but it seems quotidian compared to the eerily cinematic cover of “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That iconic, hand-painted photographic art didn’t just hint at otherworldliness, it practically showed us documentary proof of its existence.
I feel similarly about Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times,” the songs of which actually fall under the category of ‘not that bad’ — but then everyone says the man is a genius. His covers, though, have never been particularly fantastic (Milton Glaser’s famous poster doesn’t count, because it was included inside a greatest hits album). At the very least, Dylan’s back catalog of album art dependably used photography to reflect the man’s distinctive persona and current attitude. The cover for “Highway 61 Revisited,” for instance, succinctly shows the young Dylan staring back with the same inimitable knowingness that the superb D.A. Pennebacker documentary “Don’t Look Back” took ninety-six minutes to capture. Yet “Modern Times” doesn’t look like it’s even a Bob Dylan record; set aside the artist’s name and you could easily mistake it for the dust jacket wrapping a cheap and instantly forgettable summer novel.
There’s a trend here: youthful album covers have the advantage of showing youthful artists, which gives a record cover designer much more to work with in terms of romantically appealing imagery. Say what you will about whether that’s an indictment of popular culture, but it’s hard to deny that a photograph of, say, a noticeably older and heavier Elvis Costello wouldn’t stand a chance of grabbing the world by its collar the way “This Year’s Model” did so many years ago. It’s no accident that, as these artists watch more and more “Matlock,” they also discreetly chose to keep their faces off these covers.
What to make of U2, then, who seemingly can’t get enough of their own images? Judging by the phoned-in quality of their last album cover, “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” they might as well be inching closer to a faceless strategy. Never mind the half-assed nature of the typography and layout. Four aging rock ’n’ roll multi-millionaires who can’t even be bothered to stand up for their cover shoot? It’s a far cry from the urgent, direct and still riveting portrait that adorned their 1983 album “War.” Based on this, I expect the art for their next release will show them all napping, fully reclined in diamond-studded La-Z-Boy chairs.
I have to hand it, then, to Madonna. She’s long past the point where her sexually charged musical repertoire retains the power to stir anyone’s libido, but her album covers consistently feature her photographic image, invariably looking like a billion bucks and usually exceptionally well-designed too. Even the cover of her latest, “Hard Candy,” is not without its charms in its goofy come-on. The design won’t be nearly as epochal as that of her self-titled debut (immortally art directed by my friend Carin Goldberg), what with its smirk-inducing typography and senses-working-overtime color palette. But she tries. She’s fearless on this cover, absolutely fearless. That is, the woman is completely unafraid of looking like a complete fool — which she does. That counts for something when you’re a rock star.