Earlier today, Stanley Donwood gave CR a first glimpse of the special ‘newspaper edition’ he has created for Radiohead’s latest album, The King of Limbs.
The artwork is designed in the guise of a Sunday newspaper, complete with plastic packaging printed with the album name and imagery. It contains two 10-inch clear vinyl records in a sleeve, a CD of the album, a perforated blotting-sheet artwork, and a newspaper containing art and texts by Donwood.
The newspaper was printed in the US, and uses a standard US newspaper format, which conveniently folds down to approximately album size. The initial idea behind the artwork was to turn away from the elaborate packaging Donwood used for the band’s last album, In Rainbows. “In Rainbows was a great big, solid cardboard thing, if you were determined you could probably kill somebody with it, it was very heavy, and almost like a definitive statement,” he explains.
By contrast, Donwood and the band wanted the King of Limbs artwork to express something less conclusive. “It’s not like the news stops when a newspaper comes out,” he continues. “It’s just ‘this is what’s happening today’. So this is released into the world on this day, and this is where this band are right now… it is a continuing thing.”
The album artwork is released following the free giveaway by Donwood and Radiohead of the newspaper The Universal Sigh, which was recently conducted all over the world. The King of Limbs paper is a larger and more elaborate offering than The Universal Sigh, though contains some of the same texts and artworks. The newspaper giveaway was inspired by Donwood witnessing the free paper mayhem that often takes place on the London Underground. “It was the biggest art project I’d ever engineered really,” he says. “To persuade a lot of people that doing it was a good idea in the first place, and then following it up and making sure that it happened. I think it happened in 61 cities around the world in roughly the same 24-hour period.”
Donwood is drawn to the throwaway nature of papers. “Newspapers are eminently disposable,” he continues. “Every newspaper is at least 30% a newspaper that’s been before, they’re 30% recycled… They will fall apart very, very quickly, unlike a Kindle or an iPad that’s going to end up on the shores of some subcontinent somewhere. They’re almost harmless things to me. And I love the heritage of them, and what newspapers have done to change the world from being a really class-based, almost feudal system to people being able to get information cheaply.”
Donwood is conscious, however, that fans are likely to cherish the packaging, despite its ephemeral nature, and also enjoys the idea of it being something that might be protected and well looked-after. He was in part inspired to make the works after discovering a box of old copies of Oz and other 60s radical newspapers that was left, unacknowledged, on Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood’s doorstep. “They were printed really cheaply and in a real hurry,” he says of the discovery, “and they were sort of decaying, they’d lost their corners. You had to open them quite carefully… they’d become this archive that doesn’t exist anywhere else, it’s not on the internet. So all of these flyers and newspapers and fanzines had acquired a value. Because they rot and they fall to bits, they’d acquired a value that they wouldn’t have had. And it was really interesting to read something that was meant for the moment, but had been looked after.”
The 60s link continues in the blotting-paper artwork Donwood has created, which could be seen as a large sheet of LSD tabs. “I wouldn’t like to push any of those associations,” Donwood says coyly, before going on to muse on the idea of someone turning the innocent sheet into the drug. “In theory, not that I would propose such an illegal thing, but somebody could…,” he says. “And I don’t think that’s been done as a marketing thing before.”
The humble nature of the artwork for The King of Limbs flies somewhat in the face of the overly elaborate record packaging that has been in fashion of late, particularly for album reissues (this topic was recently covered by Gavin Lucas on the CR blog, here). “It’s gone into this almost King James Bible sort of thing,” says Donwood of the products. “Where the music is elevated by the packaging into something almost spiritual, almost holy… I wanted to get away from that thing where you elevate the music into something it isn’t. Because it’s just something you hear, it’s in your head. [Previously], the technology to record music has driven what the packaging is, but now that’s no longer relevant, you don’t really have to have the music in packaging at all. You could just make a whole bunch of art, and if you buy the music, you might want to buy the art.”
Donwood has a particularly aversion to CDs and CD packaging, which explains why, of the King of Limbs pack, the CD design is a touch underwhelming compared to the rest of the contents. “If it could have been any worse, it would have been,” he says. “There were difficulties with making it any worse. The original idea was to put ‘X Format’ on it and nothing else. Because I’ve hated them ever since I started doing record cover designs.” The vinyl cover sleeve, by contrast, is beautifully designed, featuring details from a series of oil paintings that Donwood worked on while the band was creating the album.
The newspaper element of the packaging was designed by Donwood, alongside “a certain band member”, presumably Thom Yorke. It features fonts scanned from 1930s Depression-era American newspapers, which were compiled by Andrew Leman, of the H P Lovecraft Historical Society of America. “So they’re all old fonts in there from the American Depression, the worldwide Depression – the last one, before the one we’re apparently in, or hovering around, or are about to enter, or have just left, or whatever it is,” says Donwood. “I wanted to make it look old-fashioned rather than like a new graphic-designed, minimal thing.”
The King of Limbs Newspaper Album will be shipped to those who’ve already ordered it on May 9. It costs £30 and can still be purchased online here.
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