Over the course of this series on King Crimson album art, I have often analyzed the work in marketing terms. A fan might like to believe that every sleeve for every beloved album sprang straight from the the interests and obsessions of the musicians themselves. But the reality of the music business dictates that such idealistic notions aren’t always the case, and even when they are, there are always concurrent commercial considerations.
True, in the early years, lyricist Peter Sinfield’s curation of the first four albums produced some remarkably idiosyncratic designs, reflecting his interests in classical western history, philosophy, and the occult. It’s not likely that the Island Records marketing department, left to their own devices, would have produced sleeves depicting paranoia personified (In the Court of the Crimson King), 12 Jungian archetypes (In the Wake of Poseidon), the 1241 Battle of Legnica (Lizard), or an celestial metaphor for isolation (Islands). Even after Sinfield’s departure, Robert Fripp enjoyed freedom enough to clad Larks’ Tongues in Aspic sleeve in Tantric imagery, and draw upon his own circle of friends to have artist Tom Phillips illustrate Starless and Bible Black.
Conventional wisdom will tell you nobody did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” better than Jeff Buckley. The few who disagree are likely of the opinion that nothing beats the original. Here’s a third opinion: the person who transformed Cohen’s song into the modern standard it is today was John Cale.
As I started to compile songs for this Songs That Broke My Heart series, I found myself noting more than a few cover versions I found “sadder” than the originals. Maybe some songs have more pain embedded in them than their original creators realized, or were capable of expressing. Perhaps the original artists purposefully obscured the darker themes for the listener to slowly untease, only to have another artist come along later and lay it all bare.
The now-iconic song “Hallelujah” has a complicated lineage. Leonard Cohen’s original was released on the album Various Positions in 1984, and has since been overshadowed by a seemingly endless parade of cover versions. Former Velvet Underground member John Cale began it all with a spare, vocal-and-piano recitation for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Time has obscured Cale’s version about as much as Cohen’s original, but it’s still the template influencing nearly every subsequent rendition.
The Power to Believe, King Crimson’s latest album to date, is now almost a decade old. There are occasional glimmers of life in the world of Crimson (most notably the 2008 40th Anniversary tour/victory lap, the Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins ProjeKct A Scarcity of Miracles, and the Crimson ProjeKct live band) but it’s entirely possible The Power to Believe will stand as the final statement (the epitaph, if you will) by this fascinatingly complex band.
The Power to Believe was released in March 2003, just as the U.S. launched its military operations in Iraq. Much of the music was composed during the 9/11 aftermath and the war in Afghanistan. Created in this climate, it’s not surprising that the music and the album cover are fittingly apocalyptic. Despite everything, the album title and some aspects of the artwork do provide hints of hope and new life to counterbalance the gloom.
You could throw darts at the tracklist from Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change and each song you hit would be sadder than the last. Hence this deviation in format from our ongoing playlist of Songs That Broke My Heart… call it an Album That Broke My Heart.
Beck had always been equal parts folk (Mutations) and weird (Odelay), and perhaps at his best when he combined the two. Although his sense of humor and absurdism usually dominates, a pronounced darkness is often present. All of these tendencies were on display on his breakthrough single “Loser”, which, together with the roughly contemporaneous “Creep” by Radiohead, was part of a groundswell of indie rock self-loathing in the mid 1990s.
King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic celebrated its 40th anniversary in March 2013. Originally met with skepticism in 1973, it now lives on in an array of new editions with meticulously restored sound, artwork, and hours of unheard recordings. The 40th Anniversary “Complete Recordings” box set is a beautiful piece of design in and of itself, but all in the service of restoring and preserving the artwork and printed matter that surrounded the original album release. The box includes reproductions of a number of period artifacts, including a handbill, ticket stub, and in the scrapbook, the original variant USLP sleeve, and promo EP. Sadly, the otherwise extensive liner notes do not directly address the sleeve art or design at all.
Declan Colgan (of Panegyric Recordings) contributes an essay to the Complete Recordings scrapbook in which he argues that Crimson’s immediately previous release was a near-fatal commercial misstep for a band already on thin ice. Crimson was long hobbled by a persistent instability following the breakup of the short-lived original lineup that recorded In the Court of the Crimson King, made a huge splash on stages worldwide, then quickly broke up. Only one of the three subsequent studio albums was recorded by anything resembling an actual band. Worse for their commercial prospects, only one further tour was undertaken during this period, and still worse than that, the resulting live album Earthbound looked and sounded like crap.
Is the Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most misunderstood? Almost two years ago, the Doctor urged his companions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi reasons that changing history doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doctor defeated the devil before, in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no compunctions in also killing god.
I’ve now listened to three fan podcasts debating the merits of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly surprised to discover the episode has been met by Doctor Who fandom with ambivalence at best, and outright derision from the rest. I would certainly not try to defend it as an instant classic, but it certainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal failures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s worthy of praise for daring to say something potentially very controversial. Perhaps it doesn’t say it very well (as evidenced by the fact that none of the participants in those three podcasts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion routine (not that there’s anything wrong with that routine — as a lifelong fan I love that routine!).
Out of all the various opinions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Verity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the latter, who was pleased the show still has the potential to be surprising. But everyone, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major takeaway from the episode: the Doctor essentially rescued a civilization from a parasite they worshipped as a god. He freed a society from their self-defeating religion, and they thanked him for it.
Any playlist of sad songs I might compile must include No-Man, but it was no easy task to select only one piece from a songbook positively chock full of them. To make my job a bit easier, I went back to the band’s beginnings.
Similar in style to their first breakout single “Colours” (a dramatic reimagining of Donovan’s mid-60s folk-pop hit), “Days in the Trees” is very much an artifact of early 90s minimalist art-pop. Despite its superficially dated production, the song is quintessential No-Man: Tim Bowness’ melancholy vocals hovering over Steven Wilson’s looped breakbeat, accompanied by Ben Coleman’s dramatic violin and very little else.
Rock ‘n’ roll is not an everyday conversation topic around our family table, but the improbable longevity of The Rolling Stones was remarkable enough to come up once during dinner. I had recently listened to “Sympathy for the Devil” for the first time in a while, and remarked upon how surprisingly dark and intense it was, so much so that it gave me chills. My grandmother asked why, then, would I deliberately listen to something that unsettled me?
She had a point. Upon reflection, I’ve found that most of the music I hold dear is chilling (like the aforementioned ode to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita), chilly (like some of the more academic, brainy music by Brian Eno, Philip Reich, or Robert Fripp), or just plain cold (pretty much everything else). Some have subject matter that makes you want to jump out a window, some just sound like they do, and some may not be sad per se, but are rather so painfully beautiful I almost can’t bear listening to them.
The story of King Crimson’s revitalization for a new decade with the album Discipline has been told many times over. The 1981–84 period is usually discussed in terms of personnel, with most commentary marveling that no two consecutive prior King Crimson albums had ever before featured the same lineup. No doubt, for a band defined by perpetual lineup changes, it was novel indeed to finally stabilize around a fixed group of musicians. It’s a handy narrative hook upon which to hang a record review, but it’s only part of the story.
1981–1984 saw the band unusually focused on a core set of musical ideas. They laid them out in a nearly perfect thesis statement in the form of their debut album Discipline in September 1981. This “new” Crimson was to be defined by interlocking guitar parts (shared at first by two virtuoso guitarists, but expanded on later tunes like “Neal and Jack and Me” to encompass the full quartet), bleeding-edge technology (drum and guitar synthesizers, plus the futuristic instrument the Chapman Stick), quirky New York pop tendencies (of the Talking Heads variety), a dash of world music influences (particularly Afropop and Indonesian gamelan), and composition derived through improvisation (examples being “The Sheltering Sky”, “Requiem”, and later most of side two of Three of a Perfect Pair).
King Crimson Album Art: In the Wake of Poseidon
A commenter got in touch with some very interesting details regarding Tammo de Jongh’s painting for King Crimson’s In the Wake of Poseidon… or should I say twelve paintings? If this sounds interesting to you too, well, what are you waiting for? Read all about it in our revised visual essay.