Friday Book Design Blog: Purgatory/Paradise, by Throwing Muses
As a long-time, if rather lapsed, fan of lyrical yet refreshingly obtuse American indie band Throwing Muses, I was intrigued to see this particular item. It’s their first collection of new music in ten years, and it comes as a multimedia package: a boutiquey little 64-page hardback book, with a 32-track CD tucked inside its front cover, plus download instructions for further exclusive content.
But it’s not being released by any record label. It is being published by The Friday Project (the ‘experimental’ arm of HarperCollins). It’s got an ISBN. Throwing Muses assert the moral right to be identified as its authors – and if that’s not the prime definition of bookdom, I don’t know what is.
Of course, as an exercise, it’s not completely groundbreaking. You may remember Radiohead doing something similar with Kid A and (especially) Amnesiac in the early 2000s. The difference there is that those were ‘special editions’. You could buy the straight CDs or downloads for less money. Here, though, this is the straight edition.
There is vinyl, for the purists, and an ebook/app, rather as Hersh did for her last solo album, Crooked. If it’s the same as that, then it will tend to get lost on my phone. I’ve already listened to this album way more than that one, simply because it’s right there in iTunes. (It’s very good, too. Very good indeed. Hersh’s voice is as huskily throat-grabbing as ever, and the songs are strong, strong, strong. But that’s not the point.)
The point is, is it a book? Well, no, I have to say, it’s not. What it is, is a deluxe CD inlay, blown up and bound all posh. How so, you ask?
Well, because of the glossy paper, because of the interspersed, home-shot but rather stock photos, because of the font (Glypha) that no one would ever set a book in that was actually for reading, because much of it is taken up with the songs’ lyrics, with mini-essays by Hersh explaining them afterwards, or not really explaining them – and because these are printed over bright two-tone background images. Just the sort of thing you get in CD inlays. Not the sort of thing you get in books.
The fact is, that font, and that background, makes me push against actually reading any of it. This despite the fact that Hersh is a published author, twice over (though I’ve not read either of her two memoirs.)
All of this makes the book look to my eyes like it’s entirely dependent on/subservient to the music. If, like me, you’re someone who, faced with a CD, rips the music to your hard drive then shelves it, never to be spun again unless the hard drive melts down or dies, then I’d be surprised if read any of it more than once.
That Amnesiac special edition, by contrast, has no text at all, beyond one page of track listing and recording credits. It is, in essence, an artist’s book by band collaborator Stanley Donwood . As such seems at first glance entirely independent of the CD it houses – though of course that very independence only makes you look and listen closer, to try to find correspondences that may or may not be there.
But perhaps that isn’ the point of Paradise/Purgatory. The point of it is that, like many artists in many fields, Throwing Muses have come to the conclusion that they’re just not likely to crack the bestseller charts (they last had a Top 20 US single 18 years ago), but have built up a loyal audience that appreciates what they do, and will fund it, in concert tickets and well-packaged artefacts. They have teamed up with The Friday Project to produce something just that little bit out of the ordinary. But is this the start of a great swathe of ‘albums-as-books’? I don’t think so. No more than The Stranglers ‘Aural Sculpture’ was the start of a great swathe of ‘albums-as-computer-games’.
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