ART BLANCHE: An Introduction
Greetings! Welcome to my new column, Art Blanche!*
We’re always told “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but that doesn’t stop us from doing it anyways. Plus, shouldn’t that be the reason the cover is there – to help us figure out if we want to read this book? Ideally, the cover’s been chosen to actually introduce us to the book in a way that grabs just the right audience. That’s where I’m at on this whole thing, at least.
So, what does that have to do with this column? Well, I’ve always had a great fascination with album art, and in my mind, album covers function just like book covers – there’s some inherent, representational meaning behind the artwork. And so, it’s my hope to make this a weekly exploration and celebration of all the wonderful, intriguing, wacky, and downright awesome album art out there. That way I can share some cool art all while getting a little more in depth than just saying “hey, this is pretty, check it out.”
The goal is to make it as fun as it is interesting, and as interesting as it is fun, so bare with me as I get the ball rolling these first couple weeks.
Disclaimer: I have nowhere near anything resembling formal training in art. In fact, I almost failed art class in seventh grade – it was a mandatory class that you basically passed just for showing up and kinda-sorta trying. That said, I have a great appreciation for art and I know how to use Google and stuff, so I think I can do this some justice.
Week One: Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
From fantastic reviews to the fascinating “stick it to the man” story behind its release, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was a pretty iconic album for Wilco. Seriously, if you’re unfamiliar with the story of how the album was released you should really read about it.
But the album’s cover is what I’m most interested in today and visually, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is just as iconic as the rest of it.
Wilco are a Chicago band, as they’ll often have you know, and while recording YHF, they wanted to proudly display their heritage on the album’s cover. In the end, they settled on a simple, but captivating picture of the Marina City towers – two twin honeycomb shaped buildings in downtown Chicago.
But before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Marina City was not the most high profile of buildings in Chicago and wasn’t an obvious choice for the album’s cover. Instead, according to graphic designer Lawrence Azerrad in his interview with the AV Club, the choice to use these towers actually organically evolved out of the long process of designing the perfect cover. For context, Azerrad said designing the cover for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot involved picking through thousands of pictures of Chicago and creating over 300 drafts of the cover before the final one was chosen. (You can catch some of the draft covers in the video here.) As time progressed, Azzerad said it became apparent to him and the band that that a more minimalist cover was going to be the most effective.
Visually, a simpler album cover needed a subject that was interesting enough to stand on its own and still be able to hold the audience’s attention. Sam Jones’ photo of Marina City provided Wilco with exactly what they needed – an abstractly interesting image that played on the towers’ unique architecture. Out of context, the photo is captivating enough to hold its own. In context, anyone who has seen Marina City can recognize it instantly.
So the photo became the cover, and Marina City became the Wilco Towers.
*The credit for this deliciously punny title goes entirely to my friend Marc. He’s a cool kid.