Tag Archives: album

Old, slow and popular

Just a couple of years after the release of Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen (who recently celebrated his 80th birthday) is back with a new album. It’s been almost 45 years since the legendary Canadian songwriter and poet embarked upon his musical career – one with much to reflect upon.

New songs for the old ceremony

'Popular Problems' was release in September 2014Popular Problems is Cohen’s 13th studio album and though the total length is just under 36 minutes, the album’s 9 tracks more than make up for its short duration.

Cohen has always liked to take his time the album’s opening track (Slow) reminds us, setting the tone for what is about to follow. Track after track, Cohen’s mature, relaxed and confident voice takes us through a musical journey of introspection and confession in what ultimately becomes a cathartic experience for both singer and listener.

Popular themes

Some of the principal themes Cohen has dealt with over the years such as love, religion, and politics are all present and treated with sincerity, humour as well as profound feeling. In some of the album’s best moments, as in the last verse of Almost Like the Blues, self-reflection, existential agony and sarcasm intermingle:

“There is no God in heaven / And there is no Hell below / So says the great professor of all there is to know / But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse / And it’s almost like salvation; it’s almost like the blues.”

Most of the songs feature discreet -at times almost imperceptible- orchestrations, while Cohen’s distinctive singing is surrounded by angelic-sounding choruses and female background vocals that strike a sharp contrast to his deep, hoarse voice. Besides, and not surprisingly, the album’s lyrics are of high literary quality. In fact, the words to some of the songs (e.g. A Street and Nevermind) were previously published as poems before finding their way into the album.

With Popular Problems Leonard Cohen offers us one more token of his seemingly exhaustless creative urge and spiritual yearning. And judging from You Got Me Singing, the album’s closing track, it appears the Canadian troubadour’s quest isn’t drawing to a close quite yet:

“You got me singing / Though the world is gone / You got me thinking / I’d like to carry on.”

The fine art of album covers

These last few days, after reading the news about Storm Thorgerson’s passing away (the man responsible for several iconic record sleeves), I have been pondering on the very special relationship between music and cover art.

Aesthetically speaking, I have always regarded the artwork of an album at least as important as the music it contains. Great album covers often attracted my attention and curiosity while I would browse through records in some store, resulting in my acquaintance with many exciting and undiscovered soundscapes.

In fact, the cover’s artwork has often been my very first impression of a music album. It was through their intriguing, mystifying covers that I was first introduced to many classic records such as Houses of the Holy, Wish You Were Here or Dark Side of the Moon, all designed by Storm Thorgerson.

Another work by Thorgerson I have always admired is his cover design for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason. The cover shows 800 hospital beds, arranged in a river-like form on a beachfront location (which is Saunton Sands in Devonshire, UK). The image took about two weeks to create and won the photographer Robert Dowling a gold award at the Association of Photographers Awards.

The association between sound and image can be crucial for an album’s thematic coherence, conceptual effect and aesthetic value. It is hard to imagine someone listening to The Wall, Sticky Fingers or The Velvet Underground & Nico without simultaneously thinking of their accompanying cover art.

Some of the best album covers, as in Thorgerson’s work, have their origins in progressive rock. One of my all-time favorites is the artwork for King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, which so powerfully captures the atmosphere of impending paroxysm and paranoia described in the album’s opening track 21st Century Schizoid Man (Barry Godber, who painted the album cover, died in 1970 of a heart attack shortly after the album’s release).

King Crimson, ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ (1969)

Another artist I have always admired is Roger Dean, whose designs have been on album covers by bands such as Babe Ruth, Budgie, Uriah Heep and Gentle Giant.

Gentle Giant, ‘Octopus’ (1972)

A truly imaginative and original artist, Dean is most well known for the amazing fantasy landscapes he has produced for the progressive rock bands Asia and Yes.

Yes, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ (1974)

Examples like the collaboration between Pink Floyd and Storm Thorgerson or Yes and Roger Dean illustrate how cover art can play an integral part in shaping a band’s identity. Masterful works of art in their own right, albums covers can both complement and enhance a band’s artistic image.

This art form, however, has been traditionally associated with vinyl, where the cover design has the necessary breathing space in order to create the desired aesthetic effect. In the era of digital music and massive downloading, it is doubtful whether cover art for music albums will continue to have the same prominence and importance. I, for one, sincerely hope it will.