Viewed from some distance, the covers of the first three albums by The Field, the pulsing and glowing project of Swedish producer Axel Willner, look rigorously academic.
On From Here We Go Sublime, Willner's 2007 breakthrough debut, two lines of red ink sit plainly atop beige paper, the band name up top centered and separated by a small patch of negative space from the album title beneath it. The logo of Kompakt, the German label that signed Willner after a handful of self-produced CD-Rs, floats just under the title, its translucent gray color nearly camouflaging it entirely. Both 2009's Yesterday and Today and 2011's excellent Looping State of Mind subscribe to the same template, save slight tweaks in background and font color and the spacing of the lines. The covers look like a collection of collegiate term papers, with the important information simply traced in colored pens.
But look a bit more closely, and you'll notice that the font actually isn't a typeface you've seen before. Rather than straight lines, squared corners and serif ends, these letters are imperfect and playful, with a T that bends toward the H and an E that can't contain its own perpendicular lines. The dot of the "i" (a rare lower-case letter in The Field's canon of covers) looks almost like an Arabic diacritical mark, and the twin O's in Looping State of Mind are unnaturally large and round, like a pair of bulbous animal eyes.
The handwriting, as it turns out, is Willner's own. When he first sent his demo to Kompakt, it was enclosed in a sleeve designed in much the same style, a carryover from Willner's days hand-designing the artwork for his own CD-R label. Kompakt liked the look, so Willner stuck with it.
"It would be a shame to break it now," Willner told the magazine XLR8R of the consistent design after releasing Yesterday and Today. "Even though a lot of things are different, I wanted to keep the sleeves as they are."
Indeed, a change would be a shame, because The Field's restrained but personal visual aesthetic shares a synergy with the music itself. To varying degrees, Willner's records have depended upon a direct, nearly metronomic beat—a mechanized pulse that booms relentlessly in the background. In a way, this beat is a vestige of what most people call techno, the punchline music of the altered-state kids moving through nightclubs with their arms held high and their eyes rolled back. And, again, viewed from some distance, The Field's discography might seem to some listeners a lot like stereotypical electronic music; as the beat marches ahead, florid tones and bits of hooks waft by like passing fancies.
But Willner's work isn't nearly as clinical as his beat allegiance or approximate associations might suggest. Just as his handwriting adds a human flair to his minimalist designs, his sense of song and sound adds a degree of comfort and inclusiveness to his propulsion. On Sublime, Willner best achieved that on the appropriately named "A Paw in My Face," which countered its seismic thud with a repetitive guitar line that felt like soul music. On Looping, it's written into the rhythmic tension and subtle misdirection of "It's Up There" and the jazz-band twinkle of "Then It's White," a track that feels warmed by sunlight reflecting from a day-old snowfall.
"Loops play tricks on the mind most of the time and that's something I want to achieve," Willner recently told the blog Inverted Audio. "Also, if it's something familiar that you can't put your finger on, even better." That is, he makes the sort of multivalent music that seems vaguely familiar but strangely alien from several different angles—it's an altogether complicated, completely human touch.