All American

Psychedelic, chaotic and packed with hidden references to the tracks within, the artwork for Neil Young’s American Stars ‘n Bars by Dean Stockwell is an unsurpassable classic, argues fellow cover designer Lucas Donaud.

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This cover for Neil Young’s American Stars ‘n Bars is probably one of my favourite pieces of album art. You can really tell that its designer, Dean Stockwell, was an actor and familiar with Hollywood movie aesthetics. Take a look at the unusual angle of the shot, the lighting effects and warm colours added to the dark sky background, for example. The resulting Mise-en-scène and the mix between photography and collage also perfectly express the feelings and poetry of the album. The text treatment is not perfect and, at times, it's even kind of awkward, which adds to the personality of the cover.

If you look at the cover while you're playing the record, you'll be impressed to see that Stockwell has managed to reference a lot of the songs from the album. Like a Hurricane might have been the main track to influence the cover artwork but there are others hidden in there too. Try it with Saddle Up The Palomino, for example… 

It is said that the woman drunkenly leaning on the bar is Connie Moskos, the girlfriend of producer David Briggs, who worked on various Neil Young albums. This kind of anecdote, plus visual subtleties such as the repetition of ‘Canadian’ (Young's nationality) on the whisky bottle, contrast with the title and allow for multiple interpretations.

To be honest the only negative point to mention is the collage at the back (pictured below). It just feels too different from the front and the whole theme of the album. I feel it partly undermines the strength and impact of the main artwork. It looks like the two collages were both created for the front and then the dismissed one ended up being used for the back. 

Overall, I think what makes the front cover one of my favourites is how the anarchic composition perfectly reflects the poetic profusion of feelings contained in the songs and its uneven and messy construction.

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