nder the Covers is a fortnightly column concerning the packaging, artwork, and design that goes into albums. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.
Any music fan can probably pinpoint a cover to a record that changed their life in some way. At the very beginning of my musical obsession, it wasn’t just one record—it was a whole host of them. Those records were by a variety of electronic artists that the media came to hype as the next big thing. Iconic, yet rarely bothering to depict actual icons—the electronic invasion of 1995 and 1996 used images that were only tangentially related to the music, but in many cases represented it better than any promo shot ever could.
The Chemical Brothers
The Brothers began their career working it out to a set of images taken from the world of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. On their collection of early EPs and singles, people always featured heavily in a rose-tinted version of the recent past, directly referencing the time period’s that the duo favored in choosing their samples. Exit Planet Dust seems the perfect cover to what was one-half mix CD and one-half every-song-could-be-an-album-closer. The people are presumably traveling, but are content on making their own way—content travelers in a picturesque setting.
Dig Your Own Hole is the more curious of the two images. Presumably that same girl is now alone—brooding and unsure of herself. Similarly, I’ve always felt like Dig Your Own Hole is a more solitary record than the joyous acid house mix-tape of EPD. The group, “Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Setting Sun” notwithstanding, are furiously minimal in places—“It Doesn’t Matter,” “Get Up On It Like This,” and “Lost in the K-Hole.” Everything is just a little bit darker than previously, suggesting that the sunny days of acid house were long gone.
No one group exemplified that fact better than Prodigy, whose movement to a darker edged punk (read: breakbeat) sound that had more in common with rock than dance, in many ways, gave the group their identity as Big Beat’s bad boys. That and Keith Flint, but he never appeared on the front of the records. I never really knew who it was on the front of Music for the Jilted Generation and I never did want to know. The mystery is the key to my enchantment with it.
The Fat of the Land is only a bit less frightening, but definitely more curious. While Music’s intent was clearly trying to capture the frustration of youth (with probable particular emphasis on 1994's Criminal Justice Bill), The Fat of the Land has no such designs. Instead, reportedly it was picked for the reason that no one would ever really know exactly what it meant. Obviously, this is what makes it great.
Similarly confusing, but erring more to the side ridiculousness, are the mid-period Orbital albums that many regard as some of their best. 1994’s Snivilisation, much like Music for the Jilted Generation was also concerned with the Criminal Justice Bill. It limited its commentary to the music, however, opting for a cover that uses bulbous shapes and anthropomorphic forms to give of a carefree attitude.
In Sides is the culmination of this artistic ideal, filling the cover up with these shapes and using brilliant colors, as opposed to Snivilisation monochromatic grays. Both record covers tend to make you believe that the music contained inside is funky, fun-loving, and free. While the first two descriptors fit perfectly (despite the social bent of some of the tracks), the construction of the album could hardly be more regimented and tightly executed. But that, along with all of the other covers here is a key idea that each group was reacting against in some way. How do you present images of that reflect the music without resorting to tired promo pictures of the group?
Aphex answered this question by making the PR pictures himself. Of course, these could hardly be called PR in the traditional sense. But that, of course, was the point. Richard D. James was the prodigy—and judging by his record covers, the prankster. It’s telling that out of all the groups that “broke” during that time, only one group bothered to use their own image in trying to sell their records. And that one group did it so in such a frightening manner. But time would only serve to let audiences know that Aphex had much more image manipulation in store.
In fact, I Care Because You Do and Richard D. James Album are positively beautiful compared to the Come to Daddy cover. It’s no accident, though, that James put himself on these records. He was the one of the few to use his own voice, giving the sense that these were more like self-portraits than anything else. Weirdly unsettling self-portraits about asthma, beetles, and milkmen.