One of the great unsung Worst Album Covers of All Time.
Those of us who lived through the early-‘10s heyday of snarky music listicles will no doubt remember that old chestnut, the “Worst Album Covers of All Time” list: a collection of the same 20-50 campy, mostly obscure album covers (MC Pooh’s Funky as I Wanna Be, Millie Jackson’s Back to the S**t!, Ken’s By Request Only), endlessly reshuffled and reposted with open-mic-caliber comedy captions. By 2013 or so, the “Worst Album Covers” list had calcified into a genre of its own, with scarcely any variation aside from the order in which they were ranked. It’s thus all the more surprising that hardly any of these lists included Burton Cummings’ 1980 album Woman Love.
Woman Love’s absence from the bad album cover canon is conspicuous simply because it fits the archetype so well. The graphic design is stunningly cheap-looking, with a black-and-white checkerboard motif that reads less “two-tone revival” and more “diner bathroom” and a title font that looks like Comic Sans before there was a Comic Sans. More importantly, the photo shares a bizarre psychosexual streak with other notoriously bad covers: Cummings is pictured from above, seated at a piano and sporting a windbreaker and hockey hair, staring up at what appears to be a giant naked woman. Whether she’s meant to be regular-sized and Cummings is tiny or Cummings is regular-sized and she is an actual giantess, the macrophilic undertones are pronounced. Even weirder, the back cover shows a similar shot, but both Cummings and the woman are nowhere to be seen; the only sign that Cummings had been there in the first place are his clothes strewn around the piano. Are we to assume he was stripped nude and—literally or figuratively—consumed? It’s probably best not to give it much thought.
Inevitably, the music on Woman Love is a lot less memorable than the cover—which isn’t to say it’s bad. I have genuine affection for opening track “It’s So Wrong,” which pairs an almost Cars-esque synth line with Cummings’ trademark soulful growl; and the title track, for which he adopts an Elvis impression almost deranged enough to rival the Cramps’ Lux Interior, is a wonderfully weird surprise. Another, much more conventional standout is lead single “Fine State of Affairs”: a hooky, keyboard-driven blue-eyed soul number that reached Number 10 in Cummings’ native Canada.
At its best, Woman Love resembles a more rough-hewn version of Billy Joel’s hybrid MOR and New Wave from 1980’s Glass Houses—not the most fashionable comparison, maybe, but by no means a damning one. The synth-heavy arrangements of tracks like “Mile a Second” also call to mind Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass, another (better) album from the same year. In its less cohesive moments, the album branches out further: touching on Bee Gees-inspired soft-rock balladry (the second and less successful single “One and Only”), Boz Scaggs-ian yacht rock (“Where Are You”) and Huey Lewis-like white blooze exertions (“It’s Hard”), each with moderate success. I would be lying if I said I didn’t buy Woman Love purely for its singularly bonkers cover; but even when judged on its musical merits, it was certainly worth the five Canadian dollars I spent on it.
Like most of Burton Cummings’ solo oeuvre, Woman Love is almost certainly a more common bargain bin find in Canada than here in the States; if Discogs is to be believed, the album wasn’t even released in the US until the Sony Legacy CD reissue in 2000. But if you do happen to come across it, in the Great White North or elsewhere, give it a chance. If nothing else, we need more people to know about one of the great unsung Worst Album Covers of All Time.