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Book Review - Stealing Hearts at a Travelling Show: The Graphic Design of U2 by Four5One Creative
June 23, 2003
I couldn't do it.
In an unprecedented fit of spring cleaning last month, I sorted through some boxes that were taking up space in my storage room, mercilessly weeding out everything I hadn't touched in years. And there, nestled between fossilized notebooks and accessories that seemed like a good idea at the time, was my Joshua Tree cassette, the one I bought the day it came out. The one I had played so often that it had developed that awful clicking sound...the one I carried around with me from high school to college to grad school to first job...the one I replaced with a CD years ago...the one whose scratched plastic cover protected the faces of men who were older than me when I bought it (who eventually became my age for a brief period in 1996, and who are now younger than I am). Could I throw this away? Of course not.
On the first page of Stealing Hearts at a Travelling Show: The Graphic Design of U2 by Four5One Creative (SHAATS:TGDOUBF5OC for short), Lisa Godson writes, "Although produced in millions and consumed by a mass audience, the nature of music is such that the relationship the possessor has with [record sleeves] tends to be highly personal and even emotive." I think she's on to something. Over the next 100 pages, Godson makes the case for U2's record sleeves, with help from Four5One's Steve Averill and Shaughn McGrath, Adam Clayton, Bono, and some truly spectacular images.
The book's striking cover features a flaming red heart on a dark background with a scattering of decorative circles, some with instantly recognizable U2 symbols (star, baby, car). Stealing Hearts at a Travelling Show is tall, slick, and has a satisfying weight. Like the packaging for a brand new U2 CD, it smells absolutely delicious, and like the packaging for a brand new U2 CD, you might want to wash your hands before you pick it up to avoid getting fingerprints all over it. It's that kind of book.
It's also a book that was unmistakably produced by designers. This can be a good or a bad thing. Bizarre fonts, overwhelming graphics, and inscrutable texts that force a reader to hold the book at oblique angles, for example, can bog down books by some designers. Thankfully, Four5One's book is straightforward and nicely organized, with all illustrations clearly labeled. Even the page numbers are easy to locate. Black, silver, and gold backgrounds complement the illustrations. It appears that no expense was spared in duplicating these images, which are pure eye candy, vibrant and extremely inviting on the first flip-through.
Arranged (mostly) chronologically, the book documents U2's album and single sleeves, along with spreads from tour books and other items ranging from T-shirts to airplanes. Beginning with the legendary images of Boy and War, continuing through the magnificent Joshua Tree section, culminating with the visual extravaganzas of the '90s, and concluding with the elegance of All That You Can't Leave Behind and the Best Of collections, the book presents a clear idea of the band's self-presentation as channeled through the talents of Averill and McGrath.
This would have been a good book with the thoughtfully selected visuals and a few explanatory captions alone, but what makes it a great book is Lisa Godson's illuminating text, which was an unexpected pleasure. Godson's accessible criticism and explanations aim to further link the band's images with their music. She also attempts to pin down the appeal of record sleeves in general. "The design of album sleeves has provided an additional voice that has untold influence on the way the music contained within the sleeve is understood and responded to," she writes.
The book effectively presents U2's album sleeves as bookends or trios. Godson links Boy with War for obvious reasons, asserting that the band was recognizing and celebrating their fledgling status via an exquisite child. These early sleeves by Averill conveyed a vulnerability and naivete that was rare, especially when compared with the raw graphics of the punk era. October was not left out of the picture, and thankfully the book recognizes that some album sleeves are weaker than others.
The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree make another effective pairing: each has a cinematic, wide screen appeal thanks to the use of horizontal bands above and below Anton Corbijn's black and white photographs. Eight pages are devoted to The Joshua Tree, and rightly so; the monumentality with which the band is presented is truly stunning, even after all these years. Godson astutely compares the front cover of the sleeve to Mount Rushmore.
Godson has no problem relating the designs for Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, and it is at this point that Stealing Hearts at a Travelling Show explodes into a riot of color and inventive ideas. Examples of rejected hand lettering styles for Achtung Baby's title and even Adam Clayton's infamous "X" further represent Four5One's meticulous attention to detail.
After digesting more than forty pages of dizzying color and general graphic overload, the startling purity of the All That You Can't Leave Behind section made me gasp. Corbijn's refined photographs of the band in Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport "suggest honesty" and a more grown-up aesthetic appropriate for a group of worldly men in their early forties. As the book ended, my curiosity about the band's next record sleeve was more acute than ever before. Will U2 and Four5One continue this spare, graceful aesthetic or go with something completely different? Time will tell.
My favorite parts of Stealing Hearts at a Travelling Show are, without question, the ones that show examples of alternate sleeve designs. I thought this was a gutsy move and well worth the (hefty) price of admission, offering a tantalizing peek into Four5One and the band's decision-making process. It is truly amazing to think that at one point Achtung Baby's cover was going to be a naked breast, or for a while they considered calling Pop "Super City Mania" or possibly "Godzilla." Hilariously, the two Best Of collections might have been titled "Love Your Early Stuff" and "Even Better Than the Early Stuff." It's comforting to see that, given the daunting diversity of ideas, they always went with the right ones, and as a result the majority of U2's album sleeves exhibit the same timeless quality as the music they contain.
I'm a member of a generation that had to pay actual quarters to play video games and save allowance money to buy records. I feel sorry for young music fans who download their music for free and are consequently denied the pleasure of owning the beautiful artifacts that come with every new release by their favorite band. I can't imagine not having these visual touchstones in my life; I find comfort in knowing that Bono will always be standing in profile, young and earnest in the desert, the War boy will always have that cut on his lip, and the castle will always be surrendering to vines. I suppose those who have never had these things cannot miss them, but for me this collection of unforgettable visuals is something I'd never dream of leaving behind.
Kelly Eddington teaches visual art at the high school level and designs @U2's monthly "Achtoon Baby" cartoons.
© @U2/Eddington, 2003.