I had a giant poster of this image on my bedroom wall all through high school. It’s my favorite thing Storm Thorgerson ever did, a strangely haunting symbol of human-to-human communication and how it doesn’t always go the way we hope it will.
If there’s a legitimate criticism that could be leveled at most of the work Hipgnosis did over its long run as one of the most in-demand album art companies in the world, it’s that a lot of those cool images don’t really have much to say; they’re to be taken almost as decorative. That doesn’t apply to all of them, of course, but when I look at that Audioslave cover they did, there’s not a whole lot to it. The point is that it’s enigmatic.
The Division Bell is different, though. Communication is a theme running through the album, so it makes sense that the artwork would reflect this, of course, in much the same way that, say Thorgerson’s Wish You Were Here cover reflected the themes of that album back in 1975.
So you have these heads in a field. And they are actually big, metal head sculptures, placed in a field, with Ely Cathedral way in the background. They’re shot in real light, with no matting or computer graphics.
And they’re talking to each other, sort of. Their mouths are open, but they’re both open, as though they’re talking past each other as much as to each other. And then again, the overall expression on their faces suggests that maybe they’re not even talking at all. They’re poised to talk, but they can’t think of what to say. Stand back far enough, and it even looks a bit like a single face, surprised at something you just said.
These blank-eyed sculptures are much more effective ciphers for the difficulties of telling each other how we really feel than two actual people would have been; they don’t have anything about them that suggests class, race, ideology, or any of the other things that artificially divide us. They’re the ultimate equals, and that means they share equal credit for anything they work out and are equally complicit when they blow it.
This is, of course, an example of an album cover made with a real budget. That is increasingly not an option, and people find ways around it. I think a lot of people would default to doing this by computer today, maybe with 3D models. It may not even look that different, but it wouldn’t be quite the same. For one thing, with real sculptures, Thorgerson and his team were able to move these figures all over the place and take photos under different conditions for different effects, effects that they may not have been able to predict. Open air photography is an invitation to serendipity.
There may or may not be a very subtle message about religion being a bell that divides in this image—I’m not sure if they were thinking about that or not when they chose Ely Cathedral’s bell tower as the thing that would be between the mouths of these heads. What the cathedral’s placement does accomplish rather nicely, though, is something that the best surreal images are uniquely suited to do: it reminds us how very strange the world looks on a regular basis.
That cathedral just sticks up over the trees at the end of this winterized field. People take it for granted, but it doesn’t really look like it belongs there when you scrutinize it. I wish there were more images online of the photo shoot for this album cover. I’d rather like to see the staging.
I may do a lot of writing, but I’ve never thought of myself as a great communicator, at least as far as the people in my life are concerned. So when I look at this image—when I looked at it every day, up there on my wall, it reminds me that this is pretty tough for everybody; everyone has his or her own communication problems. Sometimes, they render us mute, other times, they make us talk over or past one another.
In either event, I also think it’s notable that these big head sculptures are missing ears. Half of communication is listening, and when we forget that, it leads to problems.
This is my favorite thing Storm Thorgerson did. I hope he knew how good it was.