I’ve been on a real humdinger of a late-70s music kick lately. REO Speedwagon’s lead track from their laughably titled You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish has been stuck in my head for weeks. It’s a fun song that captures the arena rock sound of the time. It’s huge, maximally produced, and has a dirty organ solo. Let’s call it a guilty pleasure for now. In one of my most recent Spotify binges, I descended this big hair-and-shoulder pads rabbit hole and found a true gem: Toto’s second album, Hydra.
Take a long, hard look at that album cover. Take it all in. From corner to corner, this thing is a bonkers masterpiece. It’s an incomprehensible mishmash of Highlander and Blade Runner. Or Purple Rain with swords for some reason. The blue lighting conjures a vaguely aquatic sensation. Are we in Atlantis? Are we underwater? Who the hell knows? The brick wall in the background makes me think of an urban alleyway. Maybe Atlantis was made of bricks and that’s why it sank to the bottom of the ocean. (Too heavy???)
Now that we’ve set the scene, we can move to the main attraction: Mysterious Leather Jacket Man, or MLJM for short. MLJM’s is standing contrapposto, an obvious homage to Michelangelo’s David. Brilliant! He’s also off-center in the frame. This imbues the entire composition with tension and motion. Smartly, MLJM’s weight is on his right leg as if he’s about to arm himself with that equally mysterious sword and charge off the left edge.
Speaking of the sword, I have another humble inquiry—what the hell? Swords are a recurring theme in artist Phillip Garris’ work with Toto. At least on Toto’s first and fourth albums, the sword itself is the centerpiece of more abstract designs. Knowing this only makes Hydra’s album cover a little more sensible. I can think of two realistic explanations. One—the sword belongs to MLJM. However, that decision leads me to a whole new set of questions. Why did he drop it? Why does he need a sword in Atlantis, the utopian underwater society ruled by the tough but fair king Atlas? Or two—it isn’t MLJM’s sword. Again, we run into problems here. Why did the vanished owner leave a weapon, unsupervised, in the middle of an Atlantean alleyway? Very irresponsible sword ownership, if you ask me. Imagine how many children could hurt by an unsupervised sword. The mere thought makes my stomach churn.
Perhaps my most burning question is about MLJM’s shirt. More specifically, what happened to it? He’s obviously rocking some stylish jeans and a killer leather jacket, but there are exactly zero shirts on this album cover. Is bare chest plus leather jacket the style in Atlantis? Maybe Atlanteans have evolved weird fish-human bodies that have difficulty keeping their backs and shoulders warm. Maybe MLJM doesn’t like his nipples. Maybe he’s part of the reviled Mokopitos caste that isn’t allowed to wear shirts as punishment for their failed uprising against tough but fair king Atlas seventy-two moons ago. Indeed, he carries the weight of his ancestors on those (covered) shoulders. How tragic!
In the end, this layered and nuanced piece can be read many different ways. Some see it as clear allusion to classical Hellenic art. For others, it’s a prescient commentary on urban decay in a country with a disappearing middle class. Anyone who has been to art school can agree the sword is a phallus. Swords and guns are always phallic metaphors. Always.
Moving on, let’s take a look at the album art for You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish.
Yeah. Just a goddamn fish with a tuning fork in its mouth.