Why Are Bruce Springsteen's Album Covers So ... Ugly?
On Monday morning, national treasure Bruce Springsteen announced that he'll release a new studio album two weeks into the new year. For dedicated fans like me, the announcement was full of curious details to pick over and discuss: Three songs, including the the title track, "High Hopes," were not written by Springsteen. Tom Morello, who's been playing with him on tour and whom The Boss calls "my muse" in the announcement, plays guitar on eight. Longtime E Street band members Danny Federici and Clarence "Big Man" Clemons are on the record, too, though they died in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
It's quite typical of Springsteen to record material and then shelve it for years. Two of the songs on High Hopes came out in different versions already, in 1995. One of those was only on a CD single you got as an extra if you bought a Springsteen video on VHS. (I did, yes. No, I don't, still. Shut up.) Nineteen-ninety-five. VHS, you guys.
But it one key respect, the new album is business as usual for The Boss: Its cover is an eyesore.
A photocopier accident.
A cancer upon sight.
The stance: wide. The collar: popped. The sepia: toned. The guitar: Trying to leap out of his hands, maybe?
Bruce-left may look confident and determined, but Bruce-right looks alarmed. Moreover, he appears to be looking to Bruce-left the way many of us have long looked to Bruce-Prime: For consolation and reassurance. For strength.
Okay, so it's not wretched. But it's certainly in a land far from "good."
We're used to this. Bruuuuuuuuuce's prior album, 2012's Wrecking Ball, had a cover that looked like a kid had finger-painted its title over a goofy photo of Springsteen with Wite-Out...
...which was in fact a vast improvement upon the cover of 2009's Working on a Dream, which, as I wrote at the time (I've been thinking about this since sometime after the VHS tape), arrived "wrapped in a velvet-Elvis style tableau that looks like something a member of the Backstreets staff paid an art teacher at Freehold Community College to paint on the side of his van."
Why must this be? Why? Springsteen somehow retains his dignity even when smashing his crotch into a camera lens during the Super Bowl halftime show. There are decades of interviews attesting to his admirable taste in writers and filmmakers and so on. He's always been a perfectionist in the studio and in the mastering suite. Where does that fussiness go when he chooses the packaging for the music that means so much to him? Does he know what albums look like?
I get that album covers don't matter anymore. We barely even notice them in our little iTunes windows. The only cover I can even picture from a record I bought this year is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Mosquito, and I only remember that one because it depicts a Starship Troopers-scale winged insect violating a baby. (Google it yourself, sicko. I wish I could unsee it.)
But Springsteen's first album came out in 1973. (And it had one of his better covers!) For most of his four-decade-plus career, people bought records in physical formats, and presumably caught at least a glimpse of the sleeve when they took them out to play them.
Bruce, I speak with the love and entitlement of a true-blue fan when I tell you that your 21st century albums would look better if they'd arrived the way you spent much of the mid-80s: sleeveless. Seriously. Hire someone. Or fire someone. I don't know.
Can it be a coincidence that the two albums most responsible for elevating Springsteen from promising folk-rock savant to globally adored superstar are the ones with the best sleeves? I mean "best" in the sense of most appropriate to the themes and tone of the album, but also in the sense of least fugly.
Born to Run famously features Springsteen and Clemons in a pose of defiant camaraderie. (It also features the Big Man in leather pants.)
This was the record where the E Street Band lineup of legend came together, and it contains their "creation myth" song, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." This image conveys all that, I think. Great cover. Great album.
If you can judge a cover by its parodies, then Born to Run's is among the greatest.
(Eric Meola, the photographer who shot the Born to Run cover, blogged about his recollections of the 1975 session shortly after Clemons died in 2011. His post, which fans will find of interest, is here.)
Nine years later, Born in the U.S.A. gave us an Annie Leibovitz photo of the denim-shrouded Boss-terior. This was his biggest-selling album by far, and another solid marriage of form and content.
These are the only two Springsteen album covers I'd call iconic. There are others that, while not aesthetically remarkable, still offer a good representation of the music within. On 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, three years after Born to Run, his cocky smirk on the cover of the latter is gone, replaced by a haunted look. The music grew up on that record, too. There was, for the first time, an acknowledgment that most people don't escape their grim economic or spiritual confines.
Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, released 13 years apart, were even more somber, and their covers reflected the spare, troubled sings they carried. Most of Springsteen's albums have a picture of his face on the front, but neither of these do. They're better for it, I think.
Springsteen, of course, embodies an old notion of populism like no other stadium-level artist in his genre. (In terms of the way he presents himself to his public, he's more akin to a country star.) "No drug busts, no blood changes in Switzerland, and no golfing!" as Bono observed, when he inducted Springsteen into the Rock and Holl Hall of Fame in 1998. "No embarrassing movie roles! No exhibitions of his own paintings!"
An exhibition of his paintings, or a bit part in a John Sayles film, would be less embarrassing than that Working on a Dream cover. But Bono is onto something there: Springsteen's defining traits as an artist have always been his empathy and his workaholism.
His 21st century covers, especially, have tried way too hard to underline this notion with their rust-colored filters and artfully fuzzed-over images of the Boss's face. But why do we need his face on every album? Unless the photo is going to signal that we're going to get a side of him we haven't seen before, like Leibovitz's cover for the great Tunnel of Love album did, why bother? Why not an image thematically related to the music instead of yet another coppery, Instagramy picture of the age-defying international goodwill ambassador Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen?
I'm still going to buy High Hopes. Of course I am; I bear the burden of fandom.
I'm looking forward to hearing it.
Not to seeing it, so much.