A good album cover can be a map, a portal or a clue. A guide to the music within; a window on an artist’s life, be it glamorous or workaday; or something less obvious, an image that might allude to just one element of what’s inside. It can even be a foil to wrongfoot you. Vaughan Oliver sleeves were frequently all of these things at once.
The graphic designer, who has died aged 62, created runes to be pored over, adding – in tandem with photographers and type designers – his own potent pre-verbal language to the vocabulary of the musicians he was designing for, primarily on the 4AD label. There were human figures with entire stories to be wondered at: the man on Pixies’ Come on Pilgrim, so hairy as to be transforming; the woman suspended in something on the cover of This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears, be it seawater or starlight; the topless flamenco dancer posing for Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, a vision of pure sexuality looked on by a tiny, impotent crucified Jesus on the wall next to her.
With these and other monochrome or sepia images, such as David Lynch’s Good Day Today, there’s a kind of corrupted Victoriana, as if the holy images of Julia Margaret Cameron have been scuffed by sin. Take Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill: a stark single bed that seems to invite death and sex rather than sleep. (Oliver himself noted the “pubic triangle” of flowers at the bed’s head.)
But Oliver could do Technicolor with equal confidence. Sex rears up again on the cover of the Breeders’ Pod. Oliver himself, blurred by a long exposure, thrusts a bunch of phalluses upwards from his waist, but the wash of watercolour behind him softens the comedy. Lush would have their bright sleeves populated with the almost cliched stuff of breezy surrealism – lemons, lampshades – as well as what look like blurry strings of DNA. Oliver’s designs for Cocteau Twins are some of his most purely expressive, as sweeps of colour or arrangements of ice and flowers perfectly encapsulate the band’s hazy romance.
With this rich, contradictory blend of styles, Oliver created a mythic space to lounge away from the the neat forward march of history, heightened by his freewheeling use of typography. He was fond of clusters of clashing typefaces, in which traditional serifs or creepy scrawls would sit next to cooler, contemporary fonts in little aesthetic scuffles. As with the work of book designer Chip Kidd, there’s a very 90s kind of ironic propriety to his prim vintage serif fonts – when paired with the abstracted violent oddness of the imagery on Modern English’s Ricochet Days, the effect is of someone barely papering over their perversion.
These are vivid sensations that are triggered totally outside the music. As the writer Joy Press tweeted after Oliver’s death, the designer “made buying records a truly voluptuous experience … something that’s hard to explain to those of the streaming generation”. Oliver added so much to the music that his death is the starkest reminder of what is being lost in the transfer away from physical media. The consolidation of Instagram as our definitive social network and the ongoing health of fashion editorial mean that visual culture around music is absolutely not dying out, but a record sleeve knits together music and art in such a potent way. The sleeve is a curtain to be pulled up and walked through – it is the threshold of the record. Little wonder that Oliver has professed his love for the prog sleeves of the 70s designed by, among others, Hipgnosis. Like them, his design tells you that you’re about to go on a journey. With streaming, you’re suddenly teleported in without a map.
Even if sleeves do become less important, Oliver’s legacy is assured. He is a key influence on a whole strain of late-century design, pre-empting cyberpunk, grunge, David Fincher, Wired magazine; that whole end-of-history nexus where digital culture was making aesthetics collapse into themselves. And, while so many graphic designers tend towards minimalism, legibility and austerity, Oliver honoured the intense beauty and boisterous psychosexual energy of the 4AD gang with complex, glutted images.
“We didn’t want to join in; we wanted to stand out and fuck things up,” he once said. Stare at a Vaughan Oliver sleeve design, and your safe world starts to shake.