‘The Next Day’: interesting CD, interesting sleeve

The Next Day and "Heroes"

Sorry: if you're not keen on David Bowie the rest of us can only apologise for the rather silly amount of media interest in him just now.

The retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum and, of course, the surprise release of a new album a decade or so after apparent retirement have opened the floodgates for a worryingly high proportion of those of a certain age (40 and over) an excuse to recall their favourite Bowie album, character, film, tour etc. I fit into that demographic, I'm afraid, so here's me getting in on the act…

I finally got round to purchasing Bowie's new CD, The Next Day, last week. I'll refrain from discussing the music (I like it) but I think the sleeves so interesting that I couldn't resist a comment or two.

You've probably seen the front cover. An image of the sleeve of one of Bowie's most celebrated albums, "Heroes", overlaid with a simple white square encasing the name of the new record (see the photo above).

As the designer, Jonathan Barnbrook, commented on his blog:

We wanted to do something different with it – very difficult in an area where everything has been done before – but we dare to think this is something new. Normally using an image from the past means, ‘recycle’ or ‘greatest hits’ but here we are referring to the title The Next Day. The "Heroes" cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.

However, we all know that this is never quite the case, no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way – it seeps out in every new mark you make (particularly in the case of an artist like Bowie). It always looms large and people will judge you always in relation to your history, no matter how much you try to escape it. The obscuring of an image from the past is also about the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.

For me, the idea has the deceptive simplicity characteristic of great design. Just a white square and an unvarnished sans-serif typeface. But, with the greatest possible economy, the designer succeeds in communicating the desired message: the artist's desire, inevitable but impossible, to seek to transcend his past through new creation.

Open the sleeve and there's further intrigue. On the right, a contemporary picture of Bowie, obscured by another white square. Balanced on the left by a black square.

Inner sleeve

On closer inspection the black square is glossy, semi-reflective: the viewer sees an obscure, blurred reflection of themselves. This simple arrangement of design elements appears to be a reference to Bowie's shifting identity over the decades. He has adopted so many personas and musical styles that many listeners, even those who don't care for much of the rest of his work, have a favourite Bowie, a stage in his career that has connected, to have a certain resonance. Versatile actor that he is, Bowie has invited us to see ourselves in him, at some point. The inner sleeve plays with that idea: the white square obscures Bowie's true identity, as he has consciously done throughout the years; the reflective black square invites us to consider how we have projected our ideas and aspirations on him and his music.

Anyway, I think that's what it's getting at. Again, I like the economy of the execution. Fully expanding the sleeve by unfolding the right hand section reveals the full spread, featuring a straightforward pic of the man himself:

Fully expanded

Clever stuff, I thought. And as I say, the music's pretty good too.

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