The title doesn’t deceive. Mute: A Visual Document: From 1978 – Tomorrow is something to look at, a package that is undoubtedly of the label it covers. The design is beautiful, its orange and white simultaneously striking and mysterious. Its spine is assembled from the folded and packed pages, painted with the label’s name and logo, a design that avoids the cracking and damage that you see in hardcovers of similar girth. Its pages are glossy and colorful, daring its readers to open it randomly rather than methodically, opening gateways to artists both nostalgic and obscure. Mute is a beautiful objet d’art for the post-millennial coffee table.
That said, to take a close look at Mute is to glean little insight from it. It’s mostly a 320-page brochure, a comprehensive overview of the origins and machinations of a label with minimal accompanying editorial comment.
One missed opportunity: it’s almost unfathomable that in 2017, discussion of artists that traffic in fascist imagery can begin and end with the quality of their music (invariably high) or the originality of their artistic vision (invariably quite original). The swastika on the back cover of the Birthday Party’s Mutiny! is reduced to an amusing anecdote in which the Mute staff scratches out the offending symbol for German shipments. Boyd Rice (NON) is presented as a challenging visionary and a fan of pop music (!), while his tinkerings with Nazi and fascist imagery, pictured here by way of album covers, go unmentioned. Laibach’s evocation of fascism in costume choice and subject matter, even in its likely deployment as satire, is reduced to “confrontational-ism” and “contrary-ism”, their performance in North Korea a career highlight. While there’s a varying degree of comfort with this aesthetic — and to be sure, experimental music has toyed with fascism as a vehicle for challenging art for nearly as long as fascism has existed — to ignore it completely seems like a missed opportunity in a time when sensitivity to such subject matter is as heightened as it is now.
Another missed opportunity: during the apparent chaos of the early ’00s, when Mute was sold, existed in pseudo-limbo under the failing EMI label, and then relinquished back to label head Daniel Miller’s control. While to expect the sordid details of such business doings to be detailed in a tome celebrating the label might be a bit much, to relegate such a tumultuous time to a few spare, vague sentences is to purposefully leave out the low points that would make Mute’s modern-day resurgence so satisfying.
To concentrate on what Mute does not contain, however, is to miss the point. We are here to celebrate Mute, not disparage it, and the history that is here is excellent as a compiled collection of pieces. Every artist and album that has ever been on the album is represented here, and many of the most famous are given multi-page spreads, some with interesting enough exclusive art and photography. Seeing more of the photographs from Moby‘s Play and Everything Is Wrong photoshoots is interesting, and their presence offers a little more context to what went into the art. Including some of the flyers that were used to advertise album releases rather than merely the album covers themselves presents a clearer picture of the messages some of these bands were trying to get across. Putting era-specific collections of Depeche Mode’s albums and singles together shows a clear aesthetic progression.
Speaking of Depeche Mode, it’s clear that Depeche Mode made Mute what it became; Depeche Mode was the band that, more than any other, allowed Daniel Miller to indulge his interests and tastes through his label. The freedom that Depeche Mode allowed let scores of bands and artists get exposure that they never would have at a less successful label, and Depeche Mode is properly thanked throughout Mute by remaining ubiquitous throughout.
As Mute is ordered in a mostly-chronological fashion, Depeche Mode gets repeated chances to feature, and they get multi-page spreads in each section. Their artistic direction, largely spearheaded by Anton Corbijn, is consistently unified and interesting, and the sheer number of releases that a band of their stature got — multiple international album and single releases on a surprisingly consistent basis right up to their departure from Mute — makes for a number of beautiful collage-style pages, full of details and little stories about the purpose and creation of the art. In addition to the proper Depeche Mode releases are the myriad side projects that its members would undertake, projects like Recoil, VCMG, and Martin Gore’s solo work, not to mention Yazoo, the duo with Alison Moyet that Vince Clarke put together after leaving Depeche Mode one album into its storied career.
Mute: A Visual Document is Terry Burrows’ second release for publisher Thames and Hudson this year, and it’s clear he has a distinct style that he puts into his work. His previous release, The Art of Sound: A Visual History for Audiophiles, took the extremely wide-ranging topic of the evolution of audio mediums and condensed it into a 350-page document of similar feel, not to mention similar depth. He has done similarly-scoped projects in the past on world history. Looking to one of Burrows’ Visual History or Visual Document books for depth or focus is a fool’s errand.
That said, pairing him with Miller, who clearly cares deeply for the label that has come to define him, gives the encyclopedic approach a sense of identity, not to mention a visual style and heft that lifts the content into something more absorbing. It’s hard to imagine Mute as a label being defined more accurately or succinctly than this; even someone who has no idea of any of these artists would get a fine sense of what the label was about after perusing this book for a few minutes. Mute: A Visual Document may not offer new insight into the goings-on of the label or any of its artists, but it’s a beautiful book for the biggest of fans, not to mention a perfect addition to the “music” section in your local library’s reference collection.