How Visual Albums Are Changing the Way We Think of Movies and Music Videos

By  · Published on August 21st, 2012

The music video is in terminal condition, if not certainly dead. MTV hasn’t been associated with music for a long time, and nobody invests real money in the format that formerly revolutionized the relationship between audiences and musicians. The music video had a great run, introducing us to visionary directors and creating profound visual iconography whose power was unmatched by album covers and promotional materials, but beyond the occasional breakout video that circulates on YouTube, it’s time to say goodbye to the format that brought us everything from “Billy Jean” to “Frontier Psychiatrist.”

In the past few years a new music/video hybrid has become increasingly prevalent. The “visual album” (as coined by Animal Collective) continues to emerge as a means of creative visual expression and (often) as a form of cross-promotion for an album. Unlike music videos, visual albums stage, sometimes with interruptions, the majority of a musician or band’s LP. Even though this format seems designed to exist exclusively through web distribution (visual albums can occasionally be too long, interconnected, and narratively or stylistically cohesive to be parsed out as standalone shorts or individuated music videos, but aren’t long enough to be feature films), the visual album is also a risky declaration in the age of iTunes, proclaiming albums to be cohesive works of musical artistry rather than conveniently divisible bits of audio information.

Perhaps more so than the music video, the visual album comes at a moment of crisis in the pop musical. The 1960s gave us Hard Day’s Night. The 1970s gave us Tommy. The 1980s gave us The Wall and Purple Rain. But the cinematic genre of the pop musical has been absent perhaps as long as the music video has been existence (which makes sense). You can go to your nearest multiplex and see a 3D recorded concert of your favorite tween pop star, but it’s been a long time since anybody in the feature filmmaking business bothered to see a connection between pop music and narrative.

The visual album fills the gap of this loss, and even embraces unprecedented artistic freedom from not being burdened by running times or the potential restraints of movie studios. Often directed by the musician or band rather than a ‘proper filmmaker,’ the visual album is a promising synaesthetic expression of musical creativity.

Here are a few visual albums worth watching/listening to…

Kanye West, Runaway (2010)

Based on select tracks from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the 35-minute Runaway at first glance seems like it has all the bravura and spectacle of the big screen. But Runaway also has the narrative cohesion of a Matthew Barney film…or, in a more accurate reference to one of its many sources of inspiration, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

What narrative thread is available in Runaway chronicles West’s relationship with a beautiful part-phoenix woman. West’s delivery of dialogue lands pretty flat, but this collaboration with prolific music video director Hype Williams makes for some undeniably stunning visuals to accompany West’s contagious beats.

Runaway also feels like a definitively “in-between” visual album, as it is at once reminiscent of a music video, a pop musical, and a feature film helmed by an auteur. Check out the trailer’s channeling of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut for proof of the latter aspiration.

Animal Collective, ODDSAC (2010)

Admittedly, “visual album” is a convenient umbrella term for these otherwise hard-to-define not-quite-feature musical films, but with ODDSAC (which coined the term), the concept is demonstrated at its purest. Unlike the other works on this list, ODDSAC has no corresponding “audio album.” The music only exists in the context of this moving-image release. This gesture suggests that, unlike the other albums proper released by Animal Collective, the music depicted here is somehow inextricable from its corresponding visual context, or at least ideally meant to be so by the intent of the artist.

The Sundance debut of ODDSAC suggests it isn’t a work of cross-promotion, but an act of artistic autonomy merging two mutually determinant forms of expression: the musical and the visual.

Directed by experimental video artist Danny Perez (who has also made music videos for the band) and produced by documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit, ODDSAC is precisely the trippy, disturbing, and rocketing-out-the-box work of imagination one would expect from a band as singular and divisive as Animal Collective.

While it’d be fun as hell to see ODDSAC in, say, a midnight showing at your local repertory theater (pair it with Eraserhead), ODDSAC also proves the uniquely liminal space that the visual album (again, in its “purest” form here) persists in by the very act of being envisioned as a project separated from a band’s discography: visual albums are (potentially) not at all films, music videos, or promotional materials, but something else entirely.

TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light (2011)

TV on the Radio released an hour-long DVD to go alongside their most recent album on the same day in April 2011. More so than any other title on this list, Nine Types of Light is easily divisible into separate music videos and, indeed, has been. However, by setting a visual style for each track on the album, the music video as interpreted here no longer serves the express purpose of promoting a single, but visualizing and accompanying the sound of a particular song.

Not all albums are meant to be cohesive, and after the band’s deeply thematic one-two punch of Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science, TV on the Radio had by all means earned the right to assemble an album simply out of individual, well-crafted songs.

In choosing a different visual style (and director) for each video, Nine Types of Light also demonstrates the endless potential of the music video as a medium. Here we see TV on the Radio’s music set to animation, live performance, staged drama, confessional narrative, psychedelic onslaughts of color, and everything in between. Connecting the separate videos are scenes of idiosyncratic banter between the band at a diner. The band’s bassist, Gerard Smith, died nine days after the release of the album, so the visual accompaniment makes for an unexpectedly nice archive of the whole band together.

Dirty Projectors, Hi Custodian (2012)

Dirty Projectors frontman David Longstreth’s “film” Hi Custodian (featuring music from their recently released and recently excellent Swing Lo Magellan) won’t be available online until September 7, but its release does indicate that the “visual album” has become solidified as a new form of marrying music with image, for Longstreth listed both Purple Rain and Kanye West’s Runaway as inspirations for pursuing music as a part-narrative, part-music video, part art film hybrid of visual style and musical performance.

Dirty Projectors are an inventive and unique band – not as divisive as Animal Collective but no less sparing in their challenges to pop convention – so I see no reason as to why Hi Custodian will be any less fascinating of a multimedia creative endeavor as the other releases on this list.

The visual album, or whatever you want to call it, seems, for the moment, here to stay.

Final Thoughts

While the unconventional running times and lack of immediate cross-promotional potential initially put this pervasive new form of music/video fusion in an awkward position in terms of relevance and use value, the visual album has already proven to offer a deep well of creative potential for established musicians to further engage creatively in the act of music making, whether that music is meant for our eyes or our ears.

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