Scratch The Surface :: Slint – Spiderland

Album artwork: Does it indeed affect our listening experience, and if so, how? Scratch the Surface, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, takes a look at particularly interesting and/or exceptional cover art choices.

“To get to Utica Quarry you take Interstate 65 north out of Louisville, over the Ohio River into Indiana…In the fall the trees are rich reds, golds, browns.”

The above quote is found in author Scott Tennant’s 33 1/3 book on Slint’s Spiderland. When I came across the passage last December I found myself re-reading it several times as it felt exotic…foreign. It was as if my mind was trying to reconcile the reality of the ‘rich reds, golds and browns’ of the physical world with the black and white shot that had been imprinted on my psyche 15 years before. Subconsciously, I suppose I expected the world of Spiderland to exist only in black and white.   If you know the album, imagine those first several notes at the beginning of “Breadcrumb Trail.” Those notes, in hindsight, felt like jumping off a cliff into the unknown. Ringing stark and cold they, in a matter of seconds, ushered in the tone of the following 39 minutes. A tone so attached and symbiotic to that of its album cover it is difficult to process one without the other.

Spiderland entered my life in the beginning of my junior year of high school. Its aesthetic was unlike anything else I was listening to at the time. Other than the four faces wading neck deep in the limestone quarry on the LP’s cover, the only touchstones I had for Spiderland were a handful of other Touch & Go releases; none of whom sounded even remotely similar to Slint. As such, the black and white photograph that served as the album’s cover art—taken by Will Odham—acted as sort of visual guidepost. Even so, the band was mysterious; their sound totally alien.

Reflecting on it now I realize it was this exact mystery that colored my listening experience and, in turn, made it that much sweeter. It is an experience that would be very difficult to replicate in this, the post-Internet age.

If “Breadcrumb Trail” is Spiderland’s jumping off point and tone setter, then the albums final track—the seven and a half   minute long—“Good Morning Captain” is both its apex and summation.

MP3: Slint :: Good Morning Captain
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6 thoughts on “Scratch The Surface :: Slint – Spiderland

  1. I do believe album artwork can colour the listening experience to an extent, but I’m afraid with Spiderland I’d been listening to a tape copy for years before I even saw the cover. So my experience was coloured by a TDK insert card and my friend’s handwriting… as were so many of my other listening experiences during a certain period.

    Maybe album artwork colours the experience, but does it improve it? Does everything, in fact colour it? These days I rarely listen to a record with the sleeve notes by my side. And I listen to music on my bus ride to work so often that certain tracks are always associated with certain points along the route. So am I missing out on an essential part of the experience? Was album artwork ever really conceived as intrinsic to the music, or was it just something interesting looking to hopefully attract a few more sales?

    Perhaps we should ideally be aiming for a state where one can enjoy the music for and by its very self, uninfluenced by external factors altogether. I’m sure a lot of people in this digital age are pining for a time when the album sleeve was bigger than their head and an image could set in motion an intriguing mystery, but these things are becoming elements of our past. And maybe it’s not a bad thing.

  2. @Neil – I think that artists have often looked at art in various ways. Certainly there was a share of people who looked at album art as merely a vehicle for selling records. Have a good looking singer or band? Put ’em on the front! Are they kind of homely? Go for something arty – say, completely black. (“None. None more black.”) It is packaging, to a point, just like any other item that is purchased and created (to some extent) as a commodity.

    But I think that it’s impossible to digest art devoid of its environment. Your example of the bus ride is perfect for this. When I listen to the Drive-by Truckers’ Dirty South, I often find myself thinking of winding busrides I took through the countryside of Japan while listening to it, not the art work itself. The Handsome Family’s Through The Trees? My bus ride to my job at a school in London when I studied there. (What is it with us and bus rides, eh?)

    That said, those are records that also came out in the Napster/iTunes era. I’ve digested those records ripped to my computer far more often than I have the physical CD. When I think of records from my teenage years, before those digital revolutions, I do tend to think about the art work more in addition to the times I might remember specifically listening to them and the events happening. Joy Divison’s Unknown Pleasures will forever make me think of the art work. Same with Nirvana’s In Utero or Nevermind, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, Television’s Marquee Moon or any other record I spent a ridiculous amount of time with during that part of my life.

    Artists and composers have long understood the environmental aesthetics that can shape music. What else could explain John Cage’s (in)famous “4’33”?” He understood that environment and performance were inseparable. What this article strives to do is celebrate one particularly important (to a lot of us) environmental factor. Yes, these things are changing. No, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I also don’t think it’s good. I think it just is. I, for one, am anxious to see what things might take album art’s place.

  3. @Jneas – conversely, and this could be an interesting piece in its own right, but how about when the album art DOESNT meld w/ the LP’s contents. I distinctly taking the book out of REMs ‘Out Of Time’ and switching it out with an interior image.

  4. Once again, I have you (AD) to thank for introducing me to something truly special that I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. What an album!! It isn’t the first time you’ve done this…and don’t you dare stop now!

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