I caught wind that 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the release of Love's seminal record Forever Changes, an occasion that I couldn't let pass without a tribute listen to the revered 1967 album. I was mesmerized all over again by a range of materials—acidic rock guitar, marching rhythms, sad Mariachi horn sorties and Spanish guitar and tango beats, lush arrangements, MOR pop-jazz, and the skill to write the private lyric that drew the listener closer to the speaker to hear the words, but which denied a comforting assurance. There were menacing undercurrents under fleeting elegance, an album full of wide roads, sharp terms, and idyllic optimism. It was as if vocalist and principal songwriter Arthur Lee absorbed every note of music, from every style that poured from Los Angeles radio, blending them will, providing a true, original thing, something no one had heard before. It remains a fascinating and dramatic document; it’s damn good music. The way this disc moves from one mood to the next, quickly but not jarringly, from upbeat, dance-happy jazz to the serene yet melancholic textures, shades, and tonalities the orchestrations create as they play over the solid rock band base, remains amazing and, I think, unequaled. The Beatles were antecedents, of course, in the employ of diverse musical styles in their songs and mixing those up in ways rock and roll songwriters hadn't imagined up to that time. But a major element of Lee's and Love's success in diving headlong into the choppy eclecticism is avoiding the limitless disasters of others who attempted their versions of Sgt Pepper. Not all the music on Forever Changes has aged well. Lee’s lyrics sometimes become a murmuring stream of hippie Know-Nothingism. The guitar solos, though brief, likewise cringe-inducing, atonal fuzz tone blasts that sour these albums’ otherwise sublime arrangements. Where were Hendrix and Clapton when you needed their savvy on the frets?
All told, this is only nitpicking. The record is of- its- time and still creates a spell fifty years later. Arthur Lee was one of the greatest of rock singers as well, an ironic commentary on identity politics; we see this in his beautiful crooner style, which echoes the under-considered talent of Johnny Mathis and Sammy Davis Jr., two pioneering black performers who honed singing styles that were smooth, gallant, and acceptable to large white audiences, and also in the way Lee mastered the grunting, gravelly, slurring style of British singers like Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon, two singers who tried to replicate the sound of their heroes Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf but who, lacking the vocal apparatus, wound up creating a style of singing that was itself appealing and a means of personal expression. Lee was equally smitten with both styles and mingled them throughout his oeuvre, the silky croon and gruff belt combined for an unexpected effect, mysterious and suggestively unique. Two songs particularly have remained with me these fifty years since I first heard this record, melodies, chords, and winsome vocals that echo still amidst the accumulated memories, the opening song, and the album's final song. The first, written by guitarist and singer Bryan MacLean, is the exquisitely flawless “Alone Again Or".It begins faintly, volume slowly increasing, a Spanish guitar and a sharp, insistent report of a small drum kit, simple and elegantly finger-picked chords that bring us a confession of a kind, a soul reaching, out to a lover who leaves him alone in his isolation. The second verse is a declaration, a statement of personal purpose:
“I heard a funny thing /somebody said to me /you know that I could be in love with almost everyone, I think that people are/The greatest fun….”
As the melody charges, segues into a stirring horn solo and again fades off and then builds momentum again, we have the genius of the album, a mix of insight and naivete trying to balance them out, contained in a gorgeous, simple framework. MacLean's forlorn disquisition is about the battle of a man trying to bring clarity to the many sensations his senses brought him. Each day a new hope, every afternoon the same confusions of elation and sadness, each night a solitude that embraces the narrator as fully as the sleep that will come over him and so prepare him for the morning.
The album's last tune, Lee’s masterpiece, is “You Set the Scene,” a fascinating stitchery of the kind of rush discotheque pulse where everything is noticed and reality becomes a druggy collage. Details are word fragments, phrases, and images that do not follow each other in logical order; it is as good a description of an acid trip as I’ve listened to. The trippy pulse of the first section segues into the steady, marching stride of the second portion. Horns blare a hearkening fanfare, drums kick in with a steady, even gait, and the narrator seems to have become a man who has crashed from his high after a vision and now allows his eyes to scour the hillsides and valleys and consider, finally, the kind of future he’d to live in.
“ Everything I've seen needs rearranging /And for anyone who thinks it's strange/Then you should be the first to want to make this change/And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game/Do you like the part you're playing?”
Yes, these smacks of the old counterculture conceits, the young man, smitten with The Truth, saying farewell to parents and old friends to become genuinely authentic. But Lee’s imagination prevents this from becoming a preposterous demonstration. Lee’s voice soars, croons, quivers, strains effectively on high notes, floating with confidence over the increasingly dynamic horn arrangement. This is a march into the future; it astonishes me how magnificent this music still sounds fifty years on. Forever Changes, Love's third album, is considered by many to be the best American response to the Beatles bar-raising disc Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As is too often the case, Lee’s greatest creative period was short-lived; drugs, jail, eccentricity, and erratic behavior prevented him from regaining the heights he reached with Forever Changes.