Cover Stories: Muse, ‘Absolution’
The image came from the mind of Storm Thorgerson, the legend behind some of Pink Floyd's most iconic sleeves along with many of the most iconic album covers in music history. Along with partner Aubrey Powell, Thorgerson formed the design firm Hipgnosis in 1968.
Between their first cover (for Pink Floyd's 1968 album A Saucerful of Secrets) and their last (for Led Zeppelin's 1982 album Coda) Hipgnosis was the gold standard for surreal photography. Their work wasn't entirely photographic – Dark Side of the Moon is probably the best-known Hipgnosis sleeve – but dreamlike photos are where the firm (and Thorgerson) really shined.
What made Thorgerson's work so magical was that whenever possible, what you see is more or less exactly what the photographer saw. For example: the guy on the cover of Wish You Were Here really was on fire. For fans of album cover art, Storm's covers offer double pleasure: the beauty of the image and the wonder of how he pulled it off.
Most of his covers fall into the "classic rock" category, but a few fall into the alternative bucket, too. He created covers for XTC, Ween, Audioslave and the Mars Volta, to name a few, but Absolution is among his best post-Hipgnosis work. In his book, Taken by Storm: The Album Art of Storm Thorgerson, the designer describes how the project came about:
Commissions come in many different ways and this one arrived via the very wonderful Internet, insomuch as Dom [Howard], the intrepid drummer of Muse, discovered a rough on our website which he thought might work for them.
We met with Dom and agreed that we should try and render our pencil sketch as a real event: shadows of flying people spread across the ground as if cast by a squadron of flying craft, magical beings swooping over the Earth to the amazement of the viewer on the ground looking up. It is as though he is witnessing some mystical event, a visitation of strange beings, which can only be inferred by us, the viewers of the picture, because all we see is shadows, whereas the viewer of the picture seems them for real, gliding serenely overhead.
Howard added another dimension to the image's interpretation. Contact Music quotes the drummer as saying "the artwork can either been seen as people coming down to Earth or leaving the Earth. It's open to interpretation." The photo is sufficiently ambiguous as to leave itself open to more interpretations. Richard Evans notes in The Art of the Album Cover that the unseen beings were "casting their shadows and offering forgiveness," and in a review of the album, NME noted that the photo represented "the shadows of souls ascending to Heaven during the Rapture, or possibly aliens descending."
NME also stated that the cover "was entirely un-photoshopped. How the cut-outs casting the shadows were suspended seemingly without support remains a secret," which fortunately for our sake is not true. Thorgerson spilled the "how to" beans in his aforementioned book:
In pursuit again of the avowed philosophy of ‘doing it for real,' we made cut-out shapes from hardboard and fixed them on top of tall poles, took them to a chalkpit near London and photographed them in strong sunlight, thus to cast definite shadows. All very well you might think, except for the typical, crappy English weather, unpredictable yet grey, which meant we had to shoot this three times.
The choice of a chalkpit, according to the artist, "was deemed appropriate since Muse had spent much of their teenage years hanging out in the chalkpits near their Devon homes." The actual photograph was taken by Rupert Truman, who has his own substantial body of work to his credit.
Thorgerson and Muse (and Truman) worked together again for Absolution's follow-up, Black Holes and Revelations, the cover of which is even more evocative of Hipgnosis's heyday. The great man passed away in 2013, leaving behind arguably the most important body of work in album cover art history.