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Critic's Notebook

Will it hold up?

The uncertain future of album cover art in the age of downloads

An Iron & Wine album cover. An Iron & Wine album cover.
By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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In a perfect world, the first thing you would notice about the new Iron & Wine album is its cover. “Kiss Each Other Clean’’ features an illustration of frontman Sam Beam in some sort of cosmic splendor, wading into the water and flanked by peacocks. Without hearing a single note, you know the album has something to say.

The reality is, that cover probably isn’t enticing you to buy the album like it might have a decade ago. As consumers continue to download music and CD sales spiral, artists who meticulously curate their music’s visuals face a soul-searching question: Do we still care about album covers in this era of MP3s?

Beam, for one, can’t imagine someone hearing his new album without seeing its cover, which he drew himself. But he also realizes people’s listening habits evolve, and something as sacred as the album cover doesn’t hold the same relevance.

“I grew up in the record-store culture,’’ says Beam, who brings Iron & Wine to the House of Blues on Tuesday. “I don’t know what that would be like to have never experienced holding a record, having images for this thing attached to the music that you’re listening to. At the same time, nothing stays the same, everything changes.’’

Even if consumers aren’t as aware of them, album covers are still making bold statements. If anything, the resurgence of vinyl — which renders artwork in a glorious 12-inch square you can hold in your hands as opposed to a thumbnail image you see on your iPod — has emboldened musicians to create compelling covers meant to draw our attention more than ever.

There’s a whole crop of recent records whose covers are essentially previews for what you’re about to hear. On 2009’s “Middle Cyclone,’’ Neko Case looked like she was headed into battle. Barefoot and crouched on the hood of a ’67 Mercury Cougar with a sword in her hand, the fiery alt-country siren looked as fierce and unrelenting as the songs’ themes about heartache and man versus nature.

Janelle Monáe resembles an extraterrestrial queen on last year’s “The ArchAndroid,’’ offering a sublime snapshot of her futuristic mash-up of R&B, funk, and rock. Katy Perry is as luscious as the pink clouds she’s draped over on the cover of her 2010 album, “Teenage Dream,’’ and Taylor Swift is as carefree and magical as the twirl she’s doing on “Speak Now.’’

Covers can still be controversial, too. The original front of Kanye West’s “My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy,’’ featuring a George Condo portrait of the artist nude with some sort of female beast suggestively perched on top of him — was banned and went to print with various images.

On the flip side, there are clues that even the artists know their fans don’t value an album’s artwork as much as they used to. Take Lady Gaga. She’s the most visually minded pop star of the past decade, and yet her two record covers — for 2008’s “The Fame’’ and its follow-up, “The Fame Monster’’ — don’t especially convey her lavish attention to detail and style. Perhaps Gaga realizes album art is permanent, and permanence is her arch rival. She’s a chameleon, changing her look from day to day, and the Gaga you see on her debut feels like eons ago; it was just two years ago.

In the ’60s and ’70s, arguably the heyday of conceptual album covers, someone like Gaga would have been making mind-blowing covers on par with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.’’

Of course, there are still bands who link their albums with accompanying artwork. “Congratulations,’’ MGMT’s sophomore album, immediately springs to mind as an example of an album cover that would have been an instant classic in another era. From the lyrics to the artwork, you get a clear sense that MGMT wanted the record to comment on the band’s newfound fame.

“I think on some level there was the obvious metaphor of the surfing cat representing us and the wave cat representing our career or some sense of impending doom,’’ says Ben Goldwasser, a founder of the indie-rock band.

Ideally, he says, MGMT fans would be aware of the album’s cover, but at the end of the day, connecting to the music is the bottom line, no matter how it’s done.

“I think it’s cool that young people are still growing up listening to music,’’ Goldwasser says. “There’s no hard and fast rule that says that art in the form of popular music should always exist. I just think it’s cool that people are still consuming it and still inventing new ways to consume it.’’

Sarah Rodman contributed to this story. James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.