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O Magazine
2015-2017

A brief guide to talk
about visual albums
as though we actually
knew what they
really are

by joan pons

Let’s play it a bit dumb: if the BBC, MTV, The New York Times, Pitchfork, PBS, Esquire or The Guardian have already cut the inaugural ribbon of the visual album age, we’ll have to start talking about it at some point, right? It won’t be easy (no one dares to define it with precision and rigueur), but we must. If not, we might as well ignore the fact that Beyoncé’s Lemonade, with its separated launch in record and HBO TV special forms (yes, my friends, that’s how they define it at the IMDB), has been one of this year’s audiovisual phenomenon. Or that the new work by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds is at the same time an album, Skeleton Tree, and a sort of documentary (some might not even consider it a visual album, and they’re probably right), One More Time with Feeling, directed by a talented filmmaker with carte blanche to join in as an interventionist, Andrew Dominik. Or that Frank Ocean’s awaited return, which finally came last August, appeared not in the shape of one album, but two: one is Blonde, and the other, more ignored one, is Endless (it seems no one has listened to it because of its video, not audio, format).

Now they’re all here already, we could even boast and say we saw the visual album boom (or semi-boom, let’s not get too cocky about it) coming years ago: the industry allowed some artists (Kanye West and Runaway, Pharrell Williams or the 24-hour-long!!! Happy music video) to create some, let’s say, “visual songs”. That is, music videos and phenomena that were extra-large in length, ambition and, in some cases, creativity, as had been some Michael Jackson (Thriller, Bad) or David Bowie (Jazzin’ for Blue Jean) videos back in their day. In YouTube’s hypertrophied shop window (which is where videos have been watched for ages, as you well know), the only ways of getting noticed seem to be these two: either you make a video that wants to be a movie or… you get illustrious filmmakers to actually create your videos and make an exceptional premiere, like Radiohead with Paul Thomas Anderson or Rihanna with Harmony Korine (there’s also the “star of the screen” variety, such as the case of Massive Attack with Rosemund Pike or Cate Blanchett).

But why go for the visual accompaniment of a single song when you can find an aesthetic treatment for each and every track on the album? That’s when you make clear that the thing’s for real! And that your label has mega bucks. And that the musician has a plastic dimension that adds to his/her artistic discourse. Because a visual album is a serious thing: it’s not something to watch at any time, in any way on your mobile. They’re not short videos and are visually very complex. An audiovisual format, thus, not too apt for the devices and consumerist habits of our times and yet… very much from our times, indeed! How weird, complex and contradictory all this is!

Since it’s difficult to decide what is and what isn’t a visual album, some web sites such as Indie Shuffle have preferred to come up with a counter definition when talking about Lemonade: it’s not a collection of music videos, nor a documentary, nor a concert, nor a cool teaser with fragments of the new songs being performed (as could be the interesting Hi Custodian by the Dirty Projectors), nor a musical, blah blah blah… A very brave way of not saying anything! When a format is just starting to define its own nature, it’s unfair to cut its wings. That’s why we prefer to play at thinking about all the things that a visual album can be, and, on top of that, we don’t think any categories should exclude the rest. So, a visual album is…

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A format with many (far too many!) antecedents.
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There’s a debate here. Because some people think that visual albums have their roots in Richard Lester’s music-film playful artefacts with The Beatles, like Help! or A Hard’s Day Night. Or in the musical films acted by pop and rock artists, with exclusive songs, from the Elvis ones to Prince’s Purple Rain (or, since we’re at it, Under the Cherry Moon, a lot more over the top and difficult to fit into orthodoxy). Or in The Who-Ken Russell’s (Tommy) or Pink Floyd-Alan Parker’s (The Wall) rock operas, two musicals more to do with heterodox fantasy than with the canon (add Outkast-Bryan Barber’s Idlewild, should you want to include a rap opera). Even though the difference is a mere question of direction: grosso modo, many of these examples were about trying to look for songs to accompany the launch of a film, and visual albums are about finding images for the launch of some songs.

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A promotional event that can also be a creative phenomenon.
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Apart from its undeniable condition as a scoop and its bragged-about premieres, Beyoncé’s Lemonade (who already made a visual album for her latest and self-titled record) and Nick Cave’s One More Time with Feeling add both to their musicians’ careers and to their imaginaries. Somehow, those albums would be incomplete without their visual side: it grants them more readings, meanings, rhymes, references… Writing a review of any of those two records without having seen the visual album would be, thus, faulty (and a bit lazy). There’s a thing here, though: if the documentary (an always confusing format in this cases) on Cave hadn’t been premiered at the same time as the album, would we still consider it a visual album? Can we consider it like one now, in fact? For the moment, let’s agree that if both are published at once, the record only includes new songs and there’s an aesthetic-narrative will to go beyond the EPK and the insipid making of, then we might treat it as a visual album. More albums + documentary will come in the next years to prove us right or wrong.

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An incursion into video-dance dominions, a language that is often (or always) dodged.
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Ben Tuthill already covered this with a lot more judgement and knowledge when he compared Purpose: The Movement (Justin Bieber’s visual album in which Justin Bieber barely appears: a cool cure for egocentrism) with multi-awarded Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.

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A way of packaging a tour’s visuals as a bonus DVD for the CD’s most expensive edition.
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Well, yes, lots of visual albums resemble the visual stuff that gets projected behind the band during a concert (or in front of them, like Suede’s Night Thoughts), and which doesn’t make much sense when seen away from the stage (sometimes they do make sense indeed as rip-offs). In this category we’d find the Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World (on the one hand they did these video creations, and on the other, the official music videos), the screensavers for Bon Iver’s second album, and Nightwish’s Imaginaerum (probably the most unintentionally salvable element in all this pack due to the delirious and almost comical nature of its Gothic-symphonic pretensions).

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A concert film to present a new album.
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Even though this section is also a goldmine for tricks (no, we won’t accept any concert recorded in just any way), when the creative effort put into the songs is as big as the one put into the way in which they are going to be performed in a recorded show, then the work acquires a more respectable status that should be valued as it deserves. I’m thinking of Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave, in Prince’s Sign O’ the Times or in Suede’s Love and Poison (who for their first album devised a visual album of great substance): more than concerts (sometimes recorded without an audience), they’re a present day mis-en-scène of the band’s/musician’s careers.

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A collection of music videos that works as a secret filmmaker talent show.
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What do you mean only singles will have music videos? No, we have to distribute audiovisual richness (music video communism!) among each and every song and they will all be accompanied by their own video. If possible, besides, each directed by a different director in order to add different perspectives, discover new talent and create some networking. This option could generate very succulent VHSs and DVDs (Sonic Youth’s Goo or Los Planetas’ Unidad de desplazamiento), although it could also be just petrol to keep the fandom going, as is the case of Death Cab for Cutie’s Directions: a contest for the fans of the band to illustrate the songs of their Plans album.

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A R+D audiovisual lab.
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In an ideal world, a visual album would be a collaboration between sound and visual artists (an aspect derived from the last section) and even a sort of creative tangent for some of those musicians with aesthetic concerns. Here I’ve chosen not to include any concepts such as multimedia, 360º or transmedia, because they usually give me the chills (save in for example the case of amazing American Interior by Gruff Rhys, then I’d make an exception). But, no doubt, they’re the most enjoyable visual albums, although, again, it’s difficult to spot the differences. Could Serge Gainsbourg-Jean-Christophe Averty’s Melody or Frank Zappa-Tony Palmer’s 200 Motels be counted among them? And what about the short film with three songs from The Queen Is Dead that Derek Jarman did for The Smiths? Maybe David Byrne’s True Stories? What PJ Harvey created with Seamus Murphy for Let England Shake for sure, right? But with Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 or Electroma the thing wouldn’t be so clear… And what about the collection of GIFs that Kate NV makes for each of the songs she posts to her SoundCloud? What, then, yes or no? In any case, it’s probable that the main identity signs of a visual album are, precisely, all these insecurities: any visual proposal accompanying a sequence of songs (from a same album), with a length ranging between the medium and the feature film, and that generates doubts as to how to fit it into a known format or genre (because it’s a “yes, but no”), will probably be a visual album.

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A disastrous and pseudo-secret artistic whim.
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At this point, we all know that a visual album, be it as it may, is not exactly a cheap business. And in the worst of cases, it won’t even grant the artist any more visibility. Only die-hard fans will know, for instance, that The The made a super cool visual album for Infected that is like Matt Johnson’s Fitzcarraldo. Or that Noah & The Whale played around with the format not once, but twice in The First Days of Spring and Heart of Nowhere. Or that TV On The Radio’s Nine types of Light-the film was a lot more fun, original and interesting than the Nine Types of Light-the album. Or that Peter Christopherson from Coil directed Broken Movie for NIN’s Broken but it was never distributed officially, maybe because Trent Reznor preferred to encourage the mysterious halo of an impossible-to-find film that had been banned for being too extreme. These were pre-rip and pre-torrent times. Today you can watch it after a simple Google video search.

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An album you can only listen to upon watching it.
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Or put another way: music that only exists and is activated when the projection starts (and maybe that’s why it never appears listed on artists’ official discographies). ODDSAC by Danny Pérez (the creator to whom we owe the visual album nomenclature, by the way) for Animal Collective was a record that could only be listened to in cinema rooms, without an equivalent in audio format. Something similar happens with Frank Ocean’s Endless: apart from being a contractual obligation with Def Jam, this is as good an album as Blonde. Sometimes it even sounds like Frank Ocean’s Flashdance (that’s what Henry J Darger says)! How cool is that? But also, how many reviews have you read of it, and how many of Blonde?

At this point in the text, the obligation of writing something like a conclusive paragraph becomes absurd. In case someone hasn’t noticed, the majority of things said in this article are more impressions than certainties. Only one is clear: the visual album format is testing and creating its own identity as a half-new pop culture manifestation while this is being written. For that reason, all the hunches and sightings that might take place now are but intuitions in a crystal ball that, maybe in a few years’ time, will make us laugh. Still, should we mistake speculating for betting, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the industry, for musicians and for directors to play around with this format at some point, because it seems the moment is now. If in Spain, Niños Mutantes with Sol de invierno or Mus with Divina Luz already dared navigating these waters, and not so long ago we could consider that Vetusta Morla did so with 15151, now that we have tailwind, what’s the excuse not to, at least, give it a try?