This unique band, one of the first of mixed race and fronted by African American Arthur Lee, with his unique vocal style that ranged from bracing to ethereal,
seemed to float in from another time, and were quite unlucky, watching label-mates The Doors pushed to stardom by Elektra Records while they imploded from disorganization and drug use.
Their eventual masterpiece Forever Changes, released in 1967, made little mark in its day but continues to grow in stature, sounding as if it came from the mid-Seventies or later, featuring complex arrangements and a bevy of flutes, harpsichords, brass and strings punctuating the frothy mix, a prototype of Baroque chamber pop, with songwriting duties largely handled by Lee, though shared in three instances with guitarist Bryan MacLean.
Certainly, no masterpiece would have been predicted by those present at the inception of the album’s sessions. The first two backing tracks, those for “Andmoreagain” and “The Daily Planet,” were scheduled with Los Angeles studio musicians given the band’s level of dysfunction though, apparently, this reality lit a proverbial fire beneath their hindquarters, and they went on to lay down one of the decade’s strongest set of basic tracks in less than three days of studio time, later ornamented with a host of instruments.
Only a brief glance at the song titles (“Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale”, “Bummer In The Summer”) is needed to place the record squarely in the mid-Sixties, yet despite the mild air of doper campiness the finished product eclipses nearly all rivals in employing complex arrangements that perfectly serve the music, allowing the often socio-political lyrics to seat perfectly within each tune’s structure and leap from the page with Lee’s telling delivery.
Regardless of where you sit with ‘best album’ rankings, there’s absolutely no doubt that Forever Changes has aged far better than mid-Sixties warhorses from many groups, as well as jam-laden sides by other California acts, making it far riper for ongoing discovery.
The album kicks off with “Alone Again Or,” a track centered on pensive, barely audible acoustic strumming that leads into verses backed by sawing strings that explode into brass-backed choruses before returning to the hushed guitar again, finally breaking into a mariachi-style trumpet solo before ending as quietly as it began. The lyric, initially describing neglect from a companion, is anything but self-pitying in its solitude:
Yeah, 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
And I will be alone again tonight my dear
“A House Is Not A Motel” is clearly one of the record’s strongest offerings, with an insistent, nearly sinister opening, again on acoustic guitar, setting the stage for another instance of a perfect match between metre and rhyme, Lee starting off with “At my house I've got no shackles -- you can come and look if you want to” then, followed by an electrifying guitar break that leads to the final fade out, offering a prescient, sober forecast:
By the time that I'm through singing
The bells from the schools of wars will be ringing
More confusions, blood transfusions
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
The manner of blending acoustic and electric motifs that circle and reappear is a Love trademark, and gives a modern, ‘progressive’ feel to arrangements that still retain a pop sensibility -- tightly spun, and with no room for instrumental self-indulgence. Instead, though the tracks enjoy as many filigree flourishes as any of the era, each part is tastefully applied, a string line here, a guitar or harpsichord arpeggio there, always perfectly and skillfully timed.
It’s rare indeed to find an album covering more ground stylistically, often incorporating multiple bridges, false endings and mildly trippy codas, with nary a hair out of place. And though it certainly rocks in many places, Forever Changes is most memorable for its poignant acoustic moments, and for string arrangements incorporated so organically you’d swear they were written long before, perhaps years ahead of, the basic tracks.
Occasionally, it’s true, the perfume of the Sixties fully envelopes a track, as in “Old Man”
I once knew a man
Been everywhere in the world
Gave me a tiny ivory ball
Said it would bring me good
Never believed it would until
I have been loving you
but even here the earnestness of approach begs forgiveness, as it does in “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This"
Hummingbirds hum, why do they hum, little girls wearing
Pigtails in the morning, in the morning
La da da, da da da da
the straightforward, joyous depiction of youthful summers embellished handsomely with pizzicato strings and trumpet tones, though the ending is electronically altered to make it appear the record is skipping – perhaps a dose of reality interrupting the nostalgia?
Every classic album needs at least one tour-de-force entry, and on Forever Changes this spot is held by “Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale," as breathless and breezy as its title suggests, with the last word of each verse omitted with a pause, serving a dual purpose of starting the next verse’s sentence, and featuring an effervescent break with Lee doubling the trumpet in a single note repeated more than a dozen times in staccato fashion.
Summing up the paranoia of the Sixties most adroitly is “The Red Telephone,” likely referring to the President’s hotline to Armageddon that cleverly addresses topics such as activism and apathy with the greatest of economy:
Sitting on the hillside
Watching all the people die
I'll feel much better on the other side
I'll thumb a ride
As in all Forever Changes tracks, there are deft touches that elevate the tune to a near-anthem, including high arching strings, a mantra-like harpsichord fill, opportunistic backing vocals, and a coda with spoken word lyrics, Lee doubled in each stereo channel:
They're locking them up today
They're throwing away the key
I wonder who it'll be tomorrow, you or me?
We're all normal and we want our freedom
Forever Changes closes with its longest track that, at nearly seven minutes, provides ample time for the most complex, shifting and successful arrangement on the album. “You Set The Scene” starts with a terse, Morse code style bass line, nervous and repeating, supported by swooping bows from a cello that quickly introduces quick-paced verses backed by spiraling guitar notes and pogo-leaping strings for which Lee spits out semi-random queries: “Walk down your doorsteps, you'll take some more steps, what did you take them for?” The breezy, quizzical tone abruptly shifts, as does the music, slowing to a 4-4 lope, while Lee croons, in the tunes remaining 4 ½ minutes, lines such as the following
This is the time and life that I am living
And I'll face each day with a smile
For the time that I've been given's such a little while
And the things that I must do consist of more than style
There are places that I am going
with the beat building to a steady march regularly interrupted with hushed, rapidly bowed strings before resuming, peaking with a flourish from the trumpet in lines recalling the break in “Penny Lane," though slowed to a regular, insistent Reveille.
As the sound and style of Arthur Lee and Love stands so far afield from other acts of their day, the uninitiated may need to revisit these tracks at least twice before forming an opinion, one likely to match the author’s with respect to the album’s status: criminally neglected, and absolutely essential.
(Note: this record is now available in a number of reissued “collectors” formats, some including remastered tracks and/or alternate mixes that are well worth the added expenditure.)