Enlivened by Color: Unpacking the Album Art of Lushlife + CSLSX’s Ritualize

A businessman stands on the wing of a commercial jet in flight. He’s tense but, given the treacherous circumstances, appears fairly at ease. The image evokes an airline’s emergency instructions pamphlet, only it illustrates what not to do—ever. Titled “Adapt Or Perish”, it’s typical of artist Eric Petersen’s unsettling illustrations, wherein surrealism collides with sterile functionality.

Raj Haldar, pka Lushlife, envisions himself as that intrepid, somewhat alien gentleman in wingtips. The rapper wrote much of his recently released Ritualize at 30,000 feet: takeoff from Philadelphia, write in the sky, land in Los Angeles and record with production group CSLSX. While Lushlife’s lyrical content reflects the compact isolation of aeroplanes, CSLSX’s production is at once globetrotting and decidedly urban, evocative of how discrete regional styles might morph in clubs on other continents. Ritualize presents him as a global transient, lost in noir Tokyo clubs on “Hong Kong (Lady of Love)” and homespun, hardboiled corner functions alike. Melodrama and discontent connect the disparate settings. And the beauty and the beatitude of CSLSX’s luxurious production isn’t without crestfallen coach class doldrums. Andrew Alburn of CSLSX said this was intentional in both crafting the record and selecting artwork to correspond with individual songs.

“We knew we wanted something that conveyed both the beauty and struggle of isolation,” Alburn says. “That dichotomy was a major force in how the record was made, as well as a major thematic presence in the lyrics.”

"Adapt or Perish"
“Adapt or Perish”

Alburn and CSLSX discovered Eric Petersen in Juxtapoz, where “Adapt or Perish” appears. In his work, they found a visual analogue. A piece entitled “No Difference”—which depicts a person in a hole, their head in their hands—proved especially resonant. “‘No Difference’ really acted as a gateway for us into the larger world of his work. …We knew he had nailed the feeling in color,” Alburn said. “From there, we noticed a ton of other thematic connective tissue between his work and our own that made selecting the companion pieces for each song pretty intuitive.”

In addition to “No Difference”, the group chose four pieces by Petersen to accompany Ritualize tracks. Each one reads as a writing prompt, an incomplete story. Still, CSLSX and Petersen were kind enough to answer further questions about discovering one another’s work and collaborating on Ritualize, while also providing insights about the panels chosen to accompany individual tracks.

When in the album making process did the visual side begin to take shape?

CSLSX: As producers we’re thinking about visuals all the time as a piece of music is being formed. In some ways, the setting and imagery a piece of music conjures can guide what direction it takes. For example, the third track off Ritualize, “Hong Hong (Lady of Love)”, was always conceived as a kind of direct to VHS, neo-noir, synth-addled melodrama, the setting of which could have been placed somewhere between the Neo-Tokyo streets of Blade Runner or dockside a yacht on Miami Vice. Often times, holding those images of mood and setting in your head while producing can help guide a lot of the aesthetic decisions during the creative process (i.e. knowing we needed to close the song with a dirty sax solo).

Additionally, there was always a counterbalance of Raj’s always vivid and cerebral lyrics to build off of that could paint in much finer detail the kind of scene we were attempting to set. I think in the long run, this kind of visual approach helped us to unify our vision of the album and conceptualize each song in its own cinematic universe. So by the time we caught wind of Eric Petersen’s work, we could easily recognize its potential as a representational visual narrative for the album.

How did you learn of Eric Petersen’s work and what about it felt connected to Ritualize?

We discovered Eric after catching a feature of his work in Juxtapoz magazine, and knew pretty much instantly we’d found our visual guru. Just initially digging in, we found that so many of Eric’s pieces aligned with the sentiments of Ritualize—themes of isolation, dystopia, and self-searching, all back-dropped against such a uniquely surreal geometry and color palette. We thought he was really able to capture those feelings and moods visually, in as much as we tried to capture them sonically, by tapping into the strange beauty lingering in those themes.

Eric, had you heard of Lushlife prior to being contacted to contribute to this album?

Eric: I had not heard Ritualize at the time. This was back in August 2015. I heard a sample track from it (with a name that has been changed), and I liked the way Lushlife sounded—smooth. When I finally did hear Ritualize I thought it was completely unique. Lushlife + CSLSX were truly themselves and not afraid to do something different and I respect that in an artist. I sensed some creepiness in “Hong Kong (Lady Of Love)” and I like that. I think both our work contains shifting moods throughout.

With your work in general, what are some of the themes you find yourself drawn to and how do you see your expressing them?

Eric: I don’t try for any theme, but I can see some that have emerged after making art since 2012. I have a lot of falling, running, climbing, identical people in varying numbers, empty spaces and pits. Lately my work has become more and more minimal with geometric shapes. As far as expressing them, I actually try to have a void of expression. I am looking for an empty feeling where the viewer creates their own.

Eric’s work aims to create these simple environments that are somewhat sterile in their structure, but enlivened by their color. In a lot of ways, the opposite could be said of a Lushlife + CSLSX collaboration. The tracks are lush, labyrinthine compositions that are perhaps grounded by Lushlife’s rhythmic (almost mechanical) flow. What is the interplay that each of you sees in the art and music interaction?

Andrew: Yes that’s a good insight you bring here—I do feel there is an aesthetic balance and interaction between the visual component and the music. From a musical perspective, yes we wanted to create a lot of texture on this record, sounds that jump out and almost take on a physical form. You mention Eric’s work is very enlivened by color which is true, but I also find it very enlivened by texture as well. His work has this layer of almost tangible grit over it, which helps bring it to life. I think we often approach composition the same way.

Do you find that there’s a sense of balance with the two?

Eric: I do think there is a balance between the two. I think the simplicity of my art allows for the mind to wander while looking and listening and that Lushlife + CSLSX’s music takes center stage without additional visual noise or competition.

Andrew: Also, regarding sterile in structure vs. lush: on the surface those may appear to be opposites, but I think they accomplish the same thing in different ways. Eric’s images often feel like a crucial scene in a film, and the viewer can fill in the surrounding narrative in so many different ways. Each time I look, a new storyline appears. My hope is that people hear our record the same way. From a musical perspective, everything is in a constant state of flux—and if you listen closely you’ll hear something different every time. So while both the music and imagery line up thematically here, both also remain fluid.

Eric, what do you see your color selections as expressing in the selected works for Ritualize—both before the collab and after the collab did it change by attaching it to the music?

The selection of my colors are me having fun. I try not to put too much thought into it, but just keep working on it and changing the colors until I feel satisfied. In general, I do think that looking at art and listening to music at the same time helps enhance each other. I do it all the time. I am doing it right now with Lushlife + CSLSX’s “Body Double” and my “To Be a Person” art used for the single and enjoying the energy!

Andrew, you mentioned that Eric’s work contained the colors that you felt relative to Ritualize. Did the team talk a lot about color in the recording process? What colors were components to the music?

That wasn’t something that was discussed frequently while making the record. But when we were selecting pieces from Eric for individual songs or the album, we just collectively knew when an image felt right—and color was a big part of that. As I mentioned before, discussing imagery while making songs or relating them to imagined scenes in cinema—that was something we did a lot. So when selecting imagery, we knew the feeling a piece should convey—and naturally color is intrinsically linked to our shades of emotion. So ultimately, while color wasn’t discussed much explicitly, implicitly it was just below the surface.

A breakdown of the singles artwork by CSLSX:

"To Be A Person"
“To Be A Person”

‘Body Double’ (“To Be A Person”) – The arc of this track begins with a late night drive and then descends down into the out-of-body moments before and after a crash. Not only does this piece depict a broken shell of a body, but that multiplex of blue just seemed to align so well with the song tonally.

"Moving Up"
“Moving Up”

‘The Waking World ft. I Break Horses’ (“Moving Up”) – The track explores both the mindset of Mark Chapman on the night he killed John Lennon, and its implications on death and rebirth. In some ways this piece conjures a world of total conformity–but the focus I think, is on those who awaken and choose to leave it behind.

"Greater Than"
“Greater Than”

‘This Ecstatic Cult ft. Killer Mike’ (“Greater Than”)- “We ought to be together,” chants our ‘ecstatic cult’ in this track, although it’s not merely a suggestion. This piece captures that feeling of being captured-not just physically but mentally within indoctrination-serving as a strong counterpart to the both Mike and Raj’s verses.

"Existing Matter"
“Existing Matter”

‘Hong Kong (Lady of Love) ft. Ariel Pink’ (“Existing Matter”) – I think the mysterious woman depicted here speaks for herself!

Lushlife’s Ritualize is out now on Western Vinyl.