Jeremy Lee writes
Jewel cases. They’re the boxes that hold the disc, the booklet notes and the back cover together. They’re brittle. They’re fragile. They’re bulky. They’re easily scratched. They’re flimsy when slightly hinged incorrectly, and will even destroy the very beautiful thick booklet notes by tearing their sides into shreds with those four or six half-moon tabs. And yet I’m absolutely obsessed with them.
Call me an idiot, but I pretty much care about the case itself as much as the design of the disc or the content of the booklet notes (if any)—to me it’s only second to the performance itself. Broken jewel cases are one of my greatest nemeses: it’s a hateful sight to me, as much as broken glass, and it’s totally disconcerting to see a perfectly designed album cover ruined by that horrific streak. Even the smallest fracture on the hinge is enough to put me off from buying an album unless I absolutely want it. I know it’s foolishness but that’s me. And when anybody breaks the jewel cases of my CDs, I will hold no mercy. Ask Leonard. He’s broken my Lyapunov piano concertos disc. He knows.
And then there’s the problem with flimsy cases. It’s supremely annoying to have a case swing open and the booklet spilled out when you’re holding it by the back panel alone. It’s also terrible to close a case without a solid “tuck” sound so that you know the disc is securely enclosed by the casing. That’s either due to the hinging, which can be extremely fragile, or a worn out plastic blob on the corrugated, horizontal bit on the front panel that doesn’t fit well into its respective cubby-hole. But most of all it’s a nightmare to open the case of your new CD and discover that the casing is actually so thin you could bend it by depressing the top and bottom slightly with your fingers. That’s a problem with the build quality, and that freaks me out terribly as if the manufacturer hadn’t cared about the jewel case’s main purpose—to protect the contents that are inside.
So imagine my horror when once upon a time I put four of my CDs into a backpack and then took it back out some time later only to find that the cases of three of them were crushed. That was bad enough, but it was made even worse when I bought a few jewel cases with the sole hope to remedy the problem only to find that the new jewel cases were astoundingly flimsy. It had all the signs and symptoms that the manufacturer couldn’t care less—it was poorly hinged, terribly easy to open and sported a case so thin it could have been see-through had it been made instead out of opaque plastic. It’s downright unacceptable, given that there are so many beautifully made cases out there: the case that holds Leonard’s Telarc Poulenc disc is terrifically sturdy, my Solti Mahler 2 disc feels excellent to open and close, my Bernstein Berlin Mahler 9th closes with an absolutely charming click, and last but not least the case that comes with my Laurent Martin Alkan Préludes disc is made from plastic so thick I’m almost certain it’s bullet-proof.
[Note: As I was writing until here, Leonard called up and when I was talking to him about this very article I heard a huge crash on the other side of the line followed by a moderate invective. It turned out that his stack of CDs had collapsed and he had broken the case of one of his CDs. Haw haw haw.]
I’m also rather worried about the color of the cases. Nowadays the overwhelming majority of labels choose to use a completely see-through case, which means that the hinge-panel and the media tray (the tray that holds the CD), or whatever they may be called, is transparent, but older albums have corrugated opaque plastic for the hinge-panel and opaque polystyrene for the media tray instead. Most of them are black, but in the case of DG’s Galleria series, it’s white, which may turn yellow over time (this I’m not bothered about). No, what I’m bothered about is that most of the consumer CD cases that can be found are completely transparent cases, and while this is fine if you break a completely transparent case, it’s devastating work to find a new case in case you break a case with opaque components, and especially if it is white or any other color than black. I find it especially important to preserve the coloristic splendour of the previous case, and as such I will not replace a case until I can find an apt replacement.
But speaking of replacing cases, the most annoying type to replace is none other than fat 2CD jewel cases. Most manufacturers have replaced them with slimline 2CD cases instead and that’s why trying to find a new fat case today is almost impossible. And because fat jewel cases typically come in more colors than single-CD cases (blue, yellow and white aren’t uncommon) the odds of finding the exact color as your broken one is really one in a trillion. For the time being, slimline 2CD cases and SACD cases are also difficult to replace, though this situation will certainly improve through time. But thank God I haven’t broken any slimline 2CD cases or SACD cases. Yet.
All of these are my terrors of broken, flimsy, or wrong-colored cases. However, toying with a case that is perfect in condition and sturdy in build is an absolute joy. When I’m suitably bored I can never resist the temptation to open and close every sturdy case in my collection just for the feel of it. Decca discs seem to have the sturdiest cases of any label, and that is why my line of around 10 Decca albums have been opened and closed more times than I’ve opened and closed, oh I don’t know, my eyes. And then there are the fat cases, and although I only own two it’s enough for me to toy with for an hour. Try dropping a fat case from a few centimeters above a desk. That solid, plasticky “thud” is just about the most sensational sound that the album could produce save possibly for the performance itself. And I always like to hold the case with both hands and squeeze it softly because it just feels so robust. Having two fat cases means that I can play with them even more ways: putting them next to each other, back to back, spine to spine, top to top, bottom to bottom, front cover to front cover—it’s really as satisfying as playing Lego.
But the real joy is not so much playing with them as just looking at them. Jewel cases are possibly the most convenient and elegant way there is to put an album together, and no matter what shape or size it is it’s always a joy to look at, especially when well organized on a shelf. Whenever possible I organize my collection according to the label instead of composer just to make it look more organized and tidy. So just looking at the similar back spines of the albums being neatly arranged is a wondrous sensation—I always gaze at my (modest) collection with contentment. I look at how the reds and blues of the spines of my Decca albums rise and fall like the contour of lush hills, how organized EMI is to paint their spines red, how the fonts and colors of the print on Naxos spines change through time, how neat the DG albums look in that two-tone spine format, and I think to myself, “what a wonderful world…”
And isn’t the world wonderful? It’s been a very personal recollection here, at times ridiculous, but that’s me—it’s my way of finding amusement, contentment and joy from even the smallest of details that nobody would really pay any attention to. The purest joys in life don’t have to be complicated or extravagant—they come from the most minor of things—and to me toying with jewel cases is the most uninhibited joy I can get.