Album of the Week, March 8: Forever Changes by Love
March 8, 2015 Leave a comment
Arthur Lee was an enigmatic figure in the Los Angeles rock scene, a powerful innovator who honed the internal tensions of his band into something magical. After a few years on the outskirts of the rock and soul communities, he formed the Grass Roots, quickly renamed Love when another Grass Roots began charting. Inspired by the British invasion — you can hear elements of the Stones, the Who and the Kinks — and local peers the Byrds, Lee crafted his own distinctive flavor of rock. Incorporating folk elements, disparate acoustic flavorings, and proto-psychedelic strings and arrangements, he built a talented group to enact his musical vision.
In addition to his vocals, guitars, and percussion, Love included guitarist and vocalist Bryan MacLean, lead guitarist Johnny Echols, and bassist Ken Forssi, with a revolving door of bandmates rounding out each recording. Noted folk label Elektra signed the group as part of its first foray into rock. That dichotomy was a perfect fit for Love, also one of the first multi-racial rock acts to sign to a major label. The group’s eponymous debut was a blast of energy that hinted at punk while embracing folk. Da Capo followed, a more baroque, psychedelic set that featured more smart songs and a meandering, sidelong epic. Critics were enthralled, but Lee’s refusal to tour and the band’s unusual blend of sounds largely kept commercial success at bay.
|Label||Elektra||Release Date||November 1967|
|Producer||Arthur Lee and Bruce Botnick|
|U.S. Chart||#154||U.K. Chart||#24|
[U.S. Hot 100]
Internal tensions — fuelled by Lee’s need for control and the strong, diverse personalities as well as the usual drug-and-alcohol issues — nearly destroyed the band. Lee had a premonition of his own death and wrote a strong set of new songs for the band. Impatient for things to settle down, Elektra wanted to jettison the band and use session musicians — mostly from LA’s famous Wrecking Crew — to back him, allowing MacLean to lead the two songs he had written. After two tracks were built this way the band was jarred back into action and rose to the challenge. The result was Forever Changes, a stunning ode to the darker side of the flower power era. Lee’s personal crisis and the tense circumstances jelled into a gripping song cycle and one of the finest, most unusual rock records of all time.
Alone Again Or is the perfect opener, a flamenco-tinged meditation on loneliness and the efforts we make to disguise it. Written by MacLean, it was famously remixed by Lee to move his own vocals to the lead, making the song more eerie and melancholy while simultaneously encapsulating all the tensions of the album’s genesis. A House Is Not A Motel is a dark, moving reflection of the tensions underlying California mellow. Lee moves from streets paved with gold to water turning to blood in the course of a few verses, entreating the listener to “call my name” over a driving musical framework. It’s also jarring in the context of the whole album, one of only two tracks lacking orchestration and also one of two to feature the electric guitar attack that typified early Love. A plea for working together against a backdrop of chaos, it’s one of Lee’s finest musical realizations.
Andmoreagain is one of the Wrecking Crew tracks, but Lee’s beautiful melody anchors it to the whole work nicely. That beauty is reassuring after the previous track, but it barely hides the warning that the darkness looming just outside the door will keep coming back. Another warning that the counterculture can only effect so much change, it’s a haunting masterpiece. On The Daily Planet, the other Wrecking Crew track, disjointed — even contradictory — lyrics weave around another churning acoustic rhythm. It’s a strange reflection on the tedium of everyday life that also celebrates being alive, a gripping look at making the most of life in the context of Lee’s bleak sense of his own mortality. Old Man is a pretty, folky track by MacLean, this time retaining his vocals. Quietly romantic, it hews to the ballad tradition of the wise elder while celebrating love fairly directly. It’s a solid song and a nice counterpoint, but also the least convincing moment given the tight fabric of the rest of the disc.
With The Red Telephone, the Apocalypse looms again. Lee opens with “Sitting on a hillside, watching all the people die,” a jarringly direct look at where the world seemed headed. The lush orchestration provides a great counterpoint, making his observations even more stark. After a few minutes of bleak reflection against a beautiful backdrop, he begins reciting a disturbing chant, as he watches his neighbors being hauled away one by one and knows that his time is soon to come. It’s beautiful paranoia, a perfect summary of the tension between flower power and the Viet Nam era.
Maybe the People, a smart meta-song, finds Lee reflecting on the power of music. He celebrates the Sunset scene (between Clarke and Hilldale) where Love plies its trade, while recognizing that musical, social, and racial tensions lurk beneath the giddy surface. A flawless horn section provides a jaunty element that Lee both emphasizes and undercuts as he scats along behind it. Another fine moment, it’s one of the best reflections of the musical and social scene of the day. Live and Let Live opens with another dark image — “The snot has caked against my pants” — and gets bleak from there. The singer narrates a creepy, isolationist story, going so far as to threaten a bluebird simply for singing on his land. At times prophetic, at times clearly unhinged, the narration is emphasized by a gripping electric guitar solo that bridges the haunting acoustic opening and closing.
Lee hints at happy normalcy again with The Good Humor Man, which opens with a more welcome bird as a hummingbird creates a summery setting. After the long string of dark meditations over lovely settings, this fairly upbeat song is jarring in its own way, a smart argument against complacency. Everyday concerns recur in Bummer In the Summer, finding our narrator disenchanted with the season’s charms in the face of romantic betrayal. Simultaneously petty — given the larger themes of other songs — and compellingly human, it’s a smart move and a great moment of sequencing.
After this brief foray, Lee takes all the elements of Forever Changes and rips them up. Throwing the pieces in the air, he gives us You Set the Scene, a disjointed but oddly cohesive epic that ties the whole work together. It’s not the album’s finest moment, but it is the crucial close, the moment when the joys and fears that surge throughout the album come together. The album fails to resolve, which gives it even greater power. The forces of joy and love have a lot to offer, but they have an uphill battle. Arthur Lee refuses to guess where things will end up — he doesn’t even think he’ll be around to see it — but he leaves us with all the thoughts, warnings, and hopes he can muster. What we choose to do with them is up to us.
FURTHER LISTENING: Love imploded after Forever Changes and Lee’s sporadic solo career and occasional attempts to create a new band never lived up to the early promise of his career. When he died — in 2006, nearly forty years after his dire premonitions — he left behind a complicated, frustrating musical legacy. Love is a strong rock album that blends much of what was going on in 1966 rock and offers its own spiky, rich approach. Da Capo has moments — including the pioneering single Seven & Seven Is but gets lost in the meandering side two opus Revelation. Together, they form a stunning pair of experimental, compelling rock. That Arthur Lee and his bandmates managed to create something even more complex and compelling is a testament to the power of his vision and their collaboration. A 2001 reissue features a great historical essay and insightful liner notes. It also adds seven bonus tracks — one outtake, a demo, two alternate takes, and some studio highlights, as well as both sides of the final single recorded by the original Love. The single and outtake are solid and the other material is interesting; the whole addition is a nice wrap-up to Love but suffers a bit from stop-after-the-last-origina-track syndrome if you want to really experience the power of the album.