Cover Stories: The Subway-Inspired Artwork for Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘Fever to Tell’
Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ 2003 debut is a striking album with a cover to match. Reminiscent of classic punk covers like Winston Smith’s great sleeve for Dead Kennedys‘ Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death, the cover of Fever to Tell feels simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary.
There’s a reason for that. According to one biography, artist Cody Critcheloe was raised ” a small town punk kid addicted to junk food, dreaming of stardom.” That small town was in Kentucky, where Critcheloe balanced farm life with a steady diet of zines and punk rock. The zine aesthetic – hand lettering and collage elements – clearly resonated with the young artist. It was also during those years that he formed the band he still fronts, SSION (pronounced “shun”).
When he left home to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, Critcheloe expanded the notion of SSION into a multimedia collective encompassing both music and visual arts. “SSION is not really a band, it’s more of my ongoing pop project,” he told Noisey in 2012. “I started it when I was in high school in Kentucky, and then it sort of mutated throughout the years and right now I’m really the only remaining person.”
Still a student back in 2002, the artist visited New York City for a semester. He managed to slip Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O a sample reel of his stop motion animation shorts, and the two became friends. That friendship eventually led to an opening slot for her band at the Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side. Critcheloe built an effigy of Tori Amos for the occasion and filled it with stage blood. During his set, the singer smashed the figure, soaking the audience (many of whom were A&R reps there to see the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs) in fake blood.
Critcheloe returned to Kansas City to finish school, but he kept in touch with Karen O, sending her sketches for single sleeves. Eventually, she called and asked him to do the artwork for the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s first album Fever to Tell. Critcheloe told DIY, “I was just a huge fan, that’s all. I loved the music, and I really wanted to do something like that.”
Zines aside, the album cover entertains other influences: some intentional, others not so much. Karen O sent him a copy of the 1983 hip-hop documentary Wild Style to demonstrate the cluttered aesthetic she was looking for. “She was really into how, when you go on the subway or whatnot, there’s tons of flyers on top of one another, and things get peeled away so there’s all these layers,” said Critcheloe. It looks, like, beautiful and trashy – it’s that feeling of New York.”
That’s the intentional influence. The unintentional? “I had never used Photoshop before,” he admitted. “I feel like that’s part of the reason that it looks the way it looks. I just didn’t know what I was doing.”
But that’s no longer a problem for him. Critcheloe has racked up quite a few video credits, directing for the likes of Peaches, Kylie Minogue and Lower Dens. Art in America called his 2008 film BOY “a haunting and humorous gay coming-of-age story.” Additionally, he’s had several gallery shows and continues to release music with SSION. Buzzfeed said Critcheltoe’s recent cut “Pink Christmas” is “the gay holiday anthem we’ve always needed.”
As for his favorite track on Fever to Tell, the artist revealed that in his interview with DIY: “My favorite song when I was working on the artwork was ‘Cold Light.’ But in retrospect, I like either ‘Rich’ or ‘Black Tongue’ best. Everyone makes such a fuss about ‘Maps’ or ‘Y Control’ – but, for me, I liked the more rambunctious rock songs.”