Abbie on Aux: The cathartic art of visual albums

A drawing of a strip of film on a background of music notes. Three frames of the film are in view, and they show three different images of music videos.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

Great music often acts as a lifeline between artists and their listeners. Artists can understand and convey the most complex emotions through lyricism and instrumentation. Many songwriters go the extra mile with their work by adding visuals to contextualize the vivid lyricism and storytelling. I believe this is an essential component to a great body of work.

On Valentine’s Day, country singer Kelsea Ballerini surprise dropped her EP “Rolling Up The Welcome Mat,” a body of work detailing her emotions throughout the process of her recent divorce from singer Morgan Evans. Ballerini’s EP is raw, unfiltered and painful. Along with her EP, she put out a short film with the same name that provides the story’s imagery of marriage and divorce. 

The 20-minute film, split into chapters for each song on the EP, includes impactful visuals that give viewers a glimpse into the experiences and feelings Ballerini aims to portray in her body of work. This EP seems to have been a cathartic experience for Ballerini, who has opened up to her fans through this short film and accompanying EP more than she has before. The vulnerability of the film, with scenes of breaking plates and playing guitar in a packed-up closet, enables a direct line of connection between Ballerini and her audience.

Ballerini’s short film is just another example of how visual albums are able to bring light to the vulnerability of an artist’s lyrical storytelling. This element of albums makes the underlying story of an album or body of work more impactful for fans. One of the first examples of the transformative quality of a visual album for me was Beyonce’s “Lemonade.” A 65-minute journey through Beyonce’s emotional turmoil with her husband Jay-Z, as well as larger themes of Black unity and family, melds into a visual and musical masterpiece

Beyonce’s film is split into eleven different chapters which reflect the ever-changing emotions of the story, such as “Anger” and “Emptiness.” “Lemonade,” the film, encapsulates themes and stories that expand beyond Beyonce’s personal life and experiences. The film features clips from the 1991 drama “Daughters of the Dust” which details the experiences of American slavery, tying in themes of the Black experience. Beyonce explores this pain in full force through her music and imagery. Overall, the film tackles the Black female experience and how women stick together through pain and betrayal.

The explosiveness of “Lemonade” as a body of work is profound, and the stunning cinematography, costuming and clear emotion send it over the top. “Lemonade” can touch people’s hearts and make them stop and listen in a way not many other albums can; the experience of watching the film is genuinely epiphanous.

Providing a clear visual storytelling device alongside a piece of music seems to be a freeing outlet for many musicians — a way to present the story they want to share with audiences in a way that’s authentic to their vision. These visual works, whether short films or straight-up movie-length spectacles, go beyond the scope of a standard music video. 

Unlike a music video, visual albums are not restricted to bringing only one or two songs to life. Visual albums have the power to create a whole artistic universe for an album, for fans to see into the deeper meaning and heart of a body of music. The attention to detail and profound storytelling these films present to audiences break down the barrier between the songwriter and their audience, creating a sense of empathy that is more difficult to come by through music alone.

An example of great lyrical and visual storytelling connecting with its audience is Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well: The Short Film.” The nearly 15-minute film starring Dylan O’Brien and Sadie Sink chronicles the storyline of Taylor’s 10-minute-long ballad of truly agonizing heartbreak. Swift, as director, interspersed scenes of the film with small sequences of musicless dialogue between the lovers adding a clear portrayal of the emotional breaking points in the song’s story. O’Brien and Sink expertly portray the torment of the relationship as it begins to crumble into pieces, with scenes of Sink sobbing into her pillow and blowing out candles alone on her birthday.

The pure emotional reach of the short film and the level of vulnerability it allows for is what makes it so approachable to fans. It’s something real and unfiltered, and it shares the heart of Swift’s songwriting in a way that resonates with audiences. This is surely one part of Swift’s decision to make her newest album “Midnights” a visual album with visual stories for each song on the record, something she knows her fans can connect with.

The added component of visual storytelling and providing imagery behind excellent songwriting only elevates the experience of a great album. Artists with the ability to create stories so captivating they transcend a single media form are truly special and rare. Just as a great song tempts you to relisten hundreds of times until the lyrics are engraved in your mind, a great visual album will consume your mind and may even provide clarity to a lyric or even make you question the song’s story altogether. The power that great music and film can create when fused in the form of a visual album is pure and remarkable magic.

Bio: Abbie Bobeck SC ’26 is from Washington D.C. and enjoys creating playlists, laying in bed and listening to the rain hit her window.

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