Late last night/very early this morning, Sufjan Stevens took to Tumblr to lambast the type design on the cover of the critically-beloved Savages’ LP Silence Yourself. In the brief post, he wrote:

The very cool SAVAGES has allowed a very uncool typographical blunder on its LP cover: Helvetica Narrow (weight loss is the worst thing that can happen to an iconic font, aka iOS 6). Also can we talk about the weird italics (unnecessary affectation, and very un-British), cramped leading (totally unforgivable) and unnecessary line break? Who the Fraggle designed this?

I don’t deign to know too much about design, but I’ve gleaned a bit from friends who do it for a living and I can tell you, Sufjan’s not wrong to call this pretty bogus. Check out how the close the “Y” in “Yourself” is to the “S” in “Silence” but how far, albeit by a teeny tiny bit, the “l” in “Yourself” is from the second “e” in “Silence”: Looks weird. He followed up this design issue post with a second about the “ALL CAPS manifesto” also on the LP’s cover:

One more thing about this album: the awkward blatancy of an ALL CAPS manifesto (with line breaks) on the cover is, on one hand, a bold move (typographically), and, on the other hand, an indication of restraint and self-possession (compared to the explicit cover design of most punk/rock albums; compared to the explicit cover design of my albums, always screaming for attention). Case in point: the inherent democracy of ONE CASE (every letter equally measured) forgoes the political hierarchy of upper/lower class. Am I reading too much into this? The band has somehow achieved mystery and modesty in brash exclamations about “silence” (resonance of Buddhism?) rendered via typographical faux pas (all caps=yelling). (What would E.E. Cummings do?) Context is everything: punk sermons situated beside a muted black and white photo (evoking the band in stillness, slightly pissed off) provoke visual tension and/or situational irony, a reflection of the band’s sound and style (silence vs. noise). Restrained Aggression. Aggressive Restraint. Clean lines, crisp utility, minimalism, functionality. These are also the qualities of a good font, Helvetica being the supreme deity, and Futura Medium a minor prophet. (Times New Roman may as well be the air we breathe.) I recall in writing workshops the constant admonishment to allow your prose to disappear, so that the narrative became an “illiterate experience,” transcending the text itself, magnifying in ether (the magnitude of all things communicated by nothingness, i.e. silence). To accomplish this on the page (or in a song, or on an album cover) is one thing; to live it is nothing less than enlightenment. Thank you, Savages, for the urgent all caps homily (to “recompose” ourselves in silence). I will never forgive your awkward italics, but I will forever sing your anthems to my children’s children.

Sufjan does like to use his Tumblr occasionally to point out grammar errors and the like, but it seems this is his first major kerfuffle regarding another artist’s work. I do hope that, if this spurns any kind of beef, that Savages will never forgive his capitalization of e.e. cummings’s name, but will forever not be mad at his typeface nerdery.

Comments (59)
  1. Suf – “Am I reading too much into this?”
    Us – “YES.”

  2. This is so glorious. I’m a designer by trade myself, but my type nerdry doesn’t even compare to this. Sufjan is a hero.

    Since he’s at it, there are sooooo many other choices to tear asunder. My guess is he respects Savages enough that this “typographical blunder” hits too close to home. I’d love to see Suf go to town on many other album covers.

    Maybe instead of the states thing, he should do a few albums about typography.

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  4. The typographical abuse is spot-on, especially in this day and age where everyone and their pregnant mom is a designer with a Mac they bought at Best Buy. Cheers to Antoine Carlier, the album’s designer, and Richard Dumas, the photographer, for capturing the f%#k off spirit. Stick to making music, Sufjan.

    • 100% agree with this. The typographical ‘flaws’ are intentional – not in the sense that the designer’s gone out of his way to ‘break’ it, rather there’s a purposeful (and topical) lack of attention to detail – and Sufjan taking this to task belies his own lack of ability to contextually understand an artwork.

      In other words, it’s like listening to MBV’s Loveless and criticising its audio production values.

      • Good point about the intentional lack of attention to detail…but that is assuming a bit. It’s easy to say that the designer had some sort of punk aspiration in his lack of caring, but I think we give too much credit to some people by reading things into it ourselves. Either way, I guess it’s really easy to be lazy when it’s a punk band. Punk attitude seems to justify just about anything.

        • Savages are anything but lazy. I have never seen them in a color press photo, nor have they smiled in one. Their aesthetic is minimal and for me it calls into question what a band’s visual aesthetic has to do with their music. Yes, the design is crowded, I’m not going to pretend I know why, but it certainly seems to me to be niggling.

          • I’m not blaming the band, unless they designed it themselves. I’m really not even that miffed about the design either way (not to Suf’s degree at least), I just think it’s a bit much to just chalk everything up to a punk devil-may-care aesthetic. In design, if something is intentional it should LOOK intentional. Otherwise, it just looks like an ignorant mistake (even if you meant for it to be).

          • Kidchair nailed it. There’s too much assuming one way or the other. If was that calculated, it doesn’t seem executed well enough. And if it wasn’t calculated enough, should we really give that much of a shit?

            Do you like the way the album art looks? How much do you value how much you like the way the album art looks, compared to how much you like the music? I can name a handful of amazing albums with less-than-stellar art…and it doesn’t matter much that the art’s less-than-stellar. Thank goodness I didn’t (pre)judge the band for it.

            Oh, they’ve never done a color photo or smiled in a photo? So what? Wisely and creatively used color (literally and figuratively speaking) and expression are more valuable than playing it safe with the standard blank play. Because they’re music sounds like it does, they’re too insecure or unoriginal to go anywhere visually beyond the above? Sounds like this band may try too hard to not try enough.

            Almost forgot – their music. It’s decent. Probably wouldn’t be talked about as much if the band wasn’t comprised of attractive females. Kinda sounds like a mix of some pre-”Intimacy” Bloc Party moments and the cheese of mid-’80s Rush.

      • Intentional? I don’t see how you can possibly know that. It’s actually a pretty wild assumption, because that would be some extremely subtle messaging.

  5. I could halfway classify this as a bizarre rant, but its bizarre for all the right reasons. Still strange though:)

  6. To my knowledge the E.E. Cummings capitalization near-myth has long been debunked as an elaboration of an audience’s overexcited whimsy:

    Obviously Stevens is a complete fanatic for typographical precision (a tic that, I regret, I sometimes share, as I find him kind of annoying) so it seems weird to doubt his diligence here.

  7. This makes me love Sufjan even more. Caring deeply and earnestly about the little, inconsequential things is a corrective to the neglect our culture to approach anything with serious enthusiasm.

  8. i really have no clue when it comes to graphic design. i have even less knowledge of apple os as well. and after reading this, i’m not any closer to understanding any of what sufjan’s real argument is. that said:

    i seriously doubt putting together that album cover was a painstaking project worthy of a pass-fail grade. and, to me at least, an album cover isn’t even about that. just like its contents, an album cover is art, and it really shouldn’t be judged solely on its technical merits.

  9. So no one else thinks this is a tongue in cheek critique? Why so serious everyone?

    • Haha it very well could be. It is Sufjan, but then again…it is Sufjan.

      • eh, judging by his song titles he doesn’t always take things as seriously as people think he does. he had a bio back in the day where he listed knitting and putting up drywall as some of his skills. I think he’s just got a really dry sense of humor with things.

        • He definitely does have some great dry humor. I was so glad I knew that before I saw him live, otherwise some of his rants could have seemed very awkward. I’m sure they always are for some people (“Is he…serious?”).

          Whatever his intentions, it is awesome.

        • We all know how seriously he took The Fifty States Project…

          • I have a theory, and I don’t know Sufjan well at all, but remember when he got really sick for awhile? I feel like that could have been a reaction to the stress of putting down the 50 states wager. That’s a monstrosity of a project that could send even a Kubrick through a loop, like the kind of thing where you say it and immediately get a huge lump of regret in your throat.

            But Sufjan just strikes me as a guy who’s probably too talented and genuine for his own good. And I’m sure he’s got a joking side but it looks to me like everything he does is composed and planned out to the minute detail. And that ish can get debilitatingly stressful. May be totally off base with sickness timing, but he’s def an interesting character.

      • hahahaha I think you figured it out. He’s completely joking. And he’s not at all.

    • His use of “Fraggle” would certainly support this. Although, the Fraggles were extremely pedantic.

    • His comments about the typefaces Helvetica, Futura, and TNR made me think he was a little.

      • That’s one of those funny because it’s true things. Maybe he’s mocking type nerds? I dunno. But I’ve heard plenty of design geeks talk about those fonts with a similarly bizarre reverence. That’s part of why I have a hard time taking type “too seriously”, even as a designer.

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  11. What a twat.

  12. I think some of you fail to see the humor in this.

  13. Where was Sufjan when Vampire Weekend put out their latest album? The title of that one was practically tramp-stamped onto the cover – serifs all over the place!

  14. No one show him the In Rainbows track listing

    • If he is serious (and if you are serious), I think he probably wouldn’t care. In Rainbows is blatantly intentional in its bending of the “sacred type rules” and can therefore be seen as an aesthetic statement. Silence Yourself’s apathy could be intentional or ignorant, but the fact that it’s unclear is part of the problem.

  15. Who knows how serious Sufjan is being at any given time? He’s a dry motherfucker. I’m gonna go listen to Age of Adz and bawl my eyes out.

  16. I think everyone’s ignoring the biggest crime here. So far I’ve yet to come across a music blog to use the headline – “Sufjan savages Savages sleeve”.

    What a missed opportunity.

  17. Suf :: Shut Up!!!

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  19. Times New Roman? How Plebeian. I only write my theses in Wingdings.

  20. Sufjan has gone a bit nutty, methinks. I still dig his music, but not nearly as much as I did when I truly believed he was some kind of second coming genius dude. I kind of wish he would just take a step back and make a couple solid albums that I actually want to listen to all the time. … then he can go back to being nutty again.

  21. I can understand the design disses, but I never thought this was a bad cover. I like this style of the album art kinda “framed” by a color/blank background. I noticed Parquet Courts and Grimes did some cool things with this aesthetic the last couple years.

  22. I like Sufjan’s music but dude needs some new hobbies besides music.

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