Janet Borgerson / Jonathan Schroeder
MIT Press / USA / 2017 ISBN 9 780262036238
There has been a steady flow of album sleeve books in recent years, most of which round up a collection of covers and leave you to get on with it. This book seeks to go further, looking to place the album cover in the context of American social history (this is very much a U.S. centred book.) So it is not a guide to the mainstream rock and pop album cover, though one or two sneak through when they fit the book’s aims. Instead it seeks to build a collection of discs which are often, at least in my experience, filed under ‘esoterica’ in better organised vinyl shops. From this concept, a number of themes and strands of cover-subject-matter and content are brought together to illustrate numerous aspects of Mid-Century American life.
It is clear from the first cursory glance that the selection of covers is not dictated by the quality of the design, though many of the covers are of a good quality (and almost all of interest), but whether they relate to the subject matter. It’s the sort of approach referred to by stamp collectors as thematic. And while most album art books have a core theme (Country Music, Blue Note, The Beatles, etc.), I’m not sure I’ve seen a book before which takes this idea quite so far or tackles it so thoroughly. I have to say it’s an approach which I often let dictate my own vinyl purchases, so it’s nice to see I’m not alone! Most of the time I don’t care what the content is, if the album fits one of my interests (and is affordable), that’s enough. This very website is probably confirmation enough of that, so it should hardly be a surprise that overall the book connected with me right away, albeit with some caveats.
The content page sets the tone, listing Airlines, Space, Let’s Have A Dinner Party, Being At Home – 14 themes in all. The covers are fascinating, all the more so as they’ve just been selected to meet the subject in question, which means certainly in the U.K. I’ve seen very few of these before (and own even less.) Considering the number of book titles on vintage album art out there, that alone is something of an achievement, and suggests that the two author’s own collection (which we’re told provides most of the source material) is quite something. The cover below is chosen (like the Harry Arnold one further down) simply for the groovy chairs.
The covers are at times beautiful, but not always so. Which is quite brave; there are certainly sleeves in here (not many I hasten to add) which I would probably skip right by if I spotted them in a charity shop box (chance would be a fine thing!) but when singled out and placed into context, make the author’s point every bit as well as the better designed examples.
So if any of this strikes a chord, then add it to your shopping list. It is an American printed book (another gold star for not off-shoring to China), but there is some European distribution. Try and get your book store to order it (using the ISBN code) before you go handing money over to tax dodging high street killing mail order suppliers. It isn’t cheap, around £28 in the U.K., but you can pay that for one vinyl reissue these days, you’re unlikely to see these sleeves anywhere else, and it is an absorbing read for the most part (keep in mind text wise it does seemed to be aimed at an academic audience as much as sleeve collectors.)
Gripes? Well I think for me the main one is that for a 445 page book, only 150 records are shown. You reach page 361 and – that’s it, the rest is taken up with notes (most of which would easily have fitted in the main text), bibliography, index and goodness knows what else which would have done just as well on a linked website. Almost 300 pages are devoid of any illustrations, and far too many are in fact devoid of anything at all, as the designer seems to be from the ‘white space at all costs’ school of layout. Maybe the publisher’s have a house style and that’s it, but for a subject like this which is all about the covers, someone should have loosened their tie and allowed more in.
Each album is shown nicely on the page, with descriptive text ahead of it. But if that text goes over onto a second page, if only by a couple of lines, then in most cases the rest of that page is simply left blank. So in one example you get the front of a nice gatefold cover reproduced, which is referred to in the text, and enough white space to comfortably reproduce in reduced size the entire front and back spread beside it. It’s a no-brainer, but rules are rules and it is left empty.
Perhaps I have too much of a scrapbook approach when it comes to designing illustrated books, but I did find this a frustrating experience which took the edge off the book a bit for me. But heck, for what it is, for getting it out there, and for what Peter Saville suggests on the back cover is a ‘revisionary and essential’ approach to looking at album art, the authors are to be applauded for their achievements (and my thanks to Jonathan Schroeder for organising me a review copy.)
The authors have their own site about the book:
and discuss their approach to collecting on a post on the publisher’s site here: