I think I’ve gone on record here as enthusiastically favoring the cover of Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone as album cover of the year for 2009 – or even album cover of the decade (click to enlarge) –
And indeed, Tris McCall kindly quotes me on that nomination in his year-end Critics’ Poll, in which it won best cover. At the same time, he notes that of the voters for this cover, few were women (and of the voters for Case as best singer, a category she also dominated, none were women), and he implies this has something to do with the overwhelming babeness of Ms. Case.
Well, I certainly won’t deny that, or that that’s a factor – but for me, what makes this cover exceptional (I mean, if I were just voting for best cover on the basis of babeness, I might have just voted for this one…) is some ineffable something about the combination of the cover’s elements. I’m not sure who or what Case is looking at while wielding that sword (as Tris wonders), and I’m not entirely sure why she’s on the hood of that car (and I’m not sure whether the fact that it’s a Cougar is some sort of meta-joke). The combination of the borrowed advertising vernacular (the car photo) and Case’s sort-of-modelesque pose is amusing…but offset by her intentionally amateurish hand-drawn lettering, and why the whole thing is set in a blank nowhere (which looks as if it might have been made by layering torn strips of paper) – again, I’m not sure. But the overall effect is a lot of things: sexy, sure, but ironized (you’re not going to take the whole “muscle car/Cougar/cougar” thing seriously, are you?); ironic, but not entirely (Case may not really wield a sword, but she’s also clearly not the sort of woman to take a lot of shit from anyone, thank you very much); and somehow rather funny in a way that’s a bit hard to place…but not parodic, either. There seems to be some sort of comment on nature/culture, with the savage huntress riding her “Cougar” – barefoot, even…but of course, her mount is a car, not a wild animal; and you might at first mistake that sword for a javelin, but in fact it looks sorta museum-piece-like; and that’s not a necklace made of teeth around her neck, just a pattern on a top that looks sort of middle-level designerish (not that I’m any sort of expert).
There’s an intriguing blankness about the image: it gestures in the direction of any number of typical images, but doesn’t quite commit to any of them. The worst you could say about it, I suppose, is that it’s just a simple post-modern parody of this sort of thing* – but I think its refusal to overtly parody or editorialize about that sort of image is what makes it more than, and better than, an image that merely encouraged us to laugh at ha-ha the stereotypical swords-and-sorcery fantasy image.
I think the image is successful also because its complexity fits the complexity of the CD it houses: Case’s songs are deceptively direct and simple-sounding, but both structurally and lyrically they’re far harder to puzzle out and reduce to any sort of simplistic image or message.
Plus: hey, it’s not only guys who like the “good-looking woman with a sword” thing: look at the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or before that Xena…lots of female fans for those shows…
* Amusingly, I know this image because I know the woman who modeled for the cover…