Between The Liner Notes: 6 Things You Can Learn By Obsessing Over Album Artwork


There's something exciting about unwrapping a new CD. The sense of anticipation, the smell of the packaging, the struggle with the sticky, impossible-to-open white anti-theft strip. But as music becomes increasingly electronic (in the downloadable sense of the word), gone the way of the liner notes. Sure, you can still pull up the cover art and a track listing, but booklets filled with lyrics and stories and artwork with hidden meanings have become more and more rare, leaving music junkies with just a little less to talk and discuss and argue over. Don't know what I'm talking about? Here's a quick look into a few hidden gems plucked from the liner notes:

1. Radiohead Did NOT Create a Concept Album (Or Did They?)

1997's OK Computer by Radiohead still holds up as one of their most brilliant works. While the members of the group insist OK Computer is not a 'concept album', there are recurring themes of consumerism and human apathy among the lyrics and highlighted by the album art. The liner notes also hold a variety of hidden gems left open for interpretation. The lyrics themselves have erratic spacing, leaving some to suggest that they represent images. For instance, the gaps in the lyrics for "Lucky" reveal a man getting out of a lake or a superhero, two lines found in the song itself. Also hidden in the liner notes? The band thanks Michael, Bill, Peter and Mike...the members of R.E.M.

2. John Coltrane Sings Poetry

In the liner notes of arguably Coltrane's best album, A Love Supreme, there is a devotional poem written by the artist representing a conversation between Coltrane and God. The album is broken down into four movements, with part four being called "Psalm". In this movement, Coltrane performs what he calls "musical narration," playing the words of his poem without actually singing any lyrics. The poem ends with the cry "Thank you God. ELATION "“ ELEGANCE "“ EXALTATION "“ All from God. Thank you God. Amen."

3. Pearl Jam Wants You To Read One Book

While recording Yield, Pearl Jam was heavily influenced by a book called Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The title itself comes from one of the primary concepts of the book: yielding to nature. Inside the liner notes you will find a yield sign hidden in every picture. This album actually received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Recording Packaging, which I had no idea existed (although they were beaten out by Madonna's Ray of Light).

4. R.E.M. Included the Puddles of their Brainstorming

As you may know, R.E.M. pulled it's band name at random from the dictionary (at one point the band serious considering calling themselves Cans of Piss). Seeming to enjoy this method of selective christening, band members typically tape up a huge sheet of paper up on the studio wall and write any name that comes to their head as a method of brainstorming album names. The liner notes of Monster include some of the alternate titles they were considering. Also written in the notes are two words: For River. River Phoenix, a good friend of frontman Michael Stipe, died the year that R.E.M. was recording Monster.

5. Weezer Just Says "No"

After the huge commercial flop that was Weezer's Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo shut down Weezer for three years. However, following this hiatus, the band reunited to put out a second self-titled effort (while recording this album, Weezer toured under the pseudonym Goat Punishment). Nicknamed "The Green Album" (to differentiate it from the Blue Album and, later, the Red Album), the liner notes contain an Italian phrase from a Verdi opera: "Torniamo all'antico e sarà un progresso." The definition? Let us return to old times and that will be progress. Additionally, if you pry open the CD tray from this album, written on the edge is the word "No". Online groups have suggested this is an answer to another hidden gem from Radiohead's OK Computer. Written in the liner notes: I like you. I like you. You are a wonderful person. I'm full of enthusiasm. I'm going places. I'll be happy to help you. I am an important person, would you like to come home with me? Weezer apparently declined the invitation.

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6. Sublime Wants You To Learn the Language 

Sublime's third and final release (the album actually came out after Brad Nowell's death by heroin overdose), contains a song called "Caress Me Down". In this single, Nowell alternates between english and spanish while singing. While the other songs on the album have lyrics that appear in the liner notes, under "Caress Me Down" it has the first few lines followed simply by "Learn Spanish". Also found inside this CD's liner notes are pictures of Brad singing to his new born son and Lou Dog, Nowell's Dalmatian named for his grandfather Louie.

Of course, this is just a brief sample of the hidden wonders of liner notes. I deliberately left off some of the most famous examples (e.g. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heartsclub Band) but if you'd like to read more on that album, try this article. Does anyone else miss the joys and wonders of reading and speculating over liner notes? Got any favorite examples? Drop them in the comments when you get a sec.