For all intents and purposes album liner notes are dead.
Sure, during the compact disc phase of music distribution, there was an attempt to emulate liner notes by sticking a microscopic and impossible-to-read booklet in with the disc in a lame attempt to emulate the album experience.
Once the music download era took hold, liner notes were completely eradicated from the album vernacular, although on iTunes you can download notes and credits to your computer or device. But who does that? Especially when people download one song at a time.
Vinyl addicts know that the album ‘experience’ includes liner notes. Liner notes are the writings found on jacket covers or sleeves that include information about the album’s artist and/or music.
For those who don’t know, the origin of liner notes is most likely traced back to the classical and jazz worlds, when labels like Blue Note or Impulse! included extensive essays helping to guide the listener on his or her journey through the musical soundscape within.
For neophyte jazz listeners, this conceit almost seemed necessary to help gain insight into the music. Listening to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is challenging enough so, subsequently, the liner notes provided by both Coltrane (DEAR LISTENER…) and critic Michael Cuscuna (in the 1995 reissue of the record) help deepen the listening experience, providing a line of breadcrumbs to help keep you on track as you meander through thickets of (possibly unfamiliar) sound.
Liner notes also became vehicles of creativity for the artist wishing to extend his or her thoughts and persona through the written word. Bob Dylan’s poetic or prose notes provided an entry point into his creative mind giving listeners an expanded experience while delving into his music.
According to Dean L. Biron, in his essay “Writing and Music: Album Liner Notes,” there are 5 prominent varieties of liner notes:
- The Literary Liner Note
- The Tangential Liner Note
- The Expository Liner Note
- The Propagandist Liner Note
- The Retrospective Liner Note
I’m not more fond of one type of note over the other but I do have my favorite notes that I always refer to (and enjoy) while I’m listening to a particular record.
Neil Young’s retrospective triple album Decade includes one of the best sets of personal liner notes you can find regarding an artist’s view on his own music. The jacket is a gatefold but also has a pull out section – all of which are loaded with photos, drawings, and handwritten historical asides by Young as we experience his musical cycle from 1966-1976. Young’s personality shines through the written word and, as notes typically go, provide added depth to the 35 song compilation.
Here are Neil’s notes about his epic “Cortez the Killer”:
“Recorded with Crazy Horse in ‘Zuma’ 1975. Banned in Spain.”
Whether that’s true or not (the Spain part), its pure Neil – anti-epic, self-deprecating and provocative. And that’s what the best liner notes are about.
NOTE: the Decade set, which is on the Reprise label, is tough to find in bins – so if you see it, snag it.
© 2016 Chris Barry