Saturday, March 14, 2015

Love: Forever Changes (1967)


(Elektra)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Arthur Lee's '60s were different from everybody else's; as one of the few black leaders of a psych-rock band with a recording contract, albeit an obscure one, his perspective is a world apart from the cloudy, pillowy world of free-love hippiedom so strongly associated with Southern California in those times. But his '60s also have little in common with Jim Morrison's; his band the Doors came about at the same time, from the same city (L.A., seemingly another universe from the San Francisco of the Haight-Ashbury crowd), on the same label, yet Lee's work carries none of Morrison's obvious morbidity and schmoozing, which fuses self-conscious darkness with high school poetry. Each operated within a band that could be musically engaging but ultimately lived or died by its leader's personality, and while the Doors are unmistakably a product of their time, Lee's band Love has endured as an idiosyncratic prophecy of adventurous, complex, genuinely wonderfully weird and troubling music in the years to come. If '67 was the Summer of Love for most and the Summer of Dread for Morrison, for Lee and Love it was the Summer of Paranoia, Fear, Halting Joy.

Love's masterpiece Forever Changes has aged more gracefully than any other California album -- maybe any rock album -- of 1967; its only competition is the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, which matches Love's florid expansiveness with its own odd minimalism, though there's a case to be made that Smiley's agelessness largely came about inadvertently. Neither album was widely noticed at the time. Forever Changes still doesn't sound old or out of step with what rock bands might attempt today, and is nearly singular in its unusual production and arrangements: almost exclusively using layered acoustic guitars, with melodies that wander off unexpectedly, occasional horns and strings and elements of psychedelia, garage rock, soul and (in "Bummer in the Summer") even genres yet to be created. It's undeniably a druggy, dreamlike experience but in a unique, personality-driven way that is unmatched elsewhere in the annals of bizarro outfits of the time from the C.A. Quintet to the Seeds. The album also stands significantly apart from Love's prior work; their singles had always been more immediately appealing and accessible than anything ever recorded by, say, the Velvet Underground. Lee had a great rock & roll voice and the band could rave up like few other American groups emanating from garage traditions; they came to prominence with, for heaven's sake, a Burt Bacharach song.

Forever Changes, on the other hand, takes its time; it's provocative and enigmatic in ways that can be initially infuriating, which may be one reason why when one has connected with it, it never seems to wear out its welcome after hundreds of plays. While so many albums of this period, even masterful ones like Sgt. Pepper, are unmistakably calculated with an ear toward the mood of the times, Forever Changes feels like it just happens to have existed when it did, to have captured somebody flying off the handle surrounded by the chaos and foreboding of its era not directly heard but unmistakably there. Alex Chilton would later generate this same sort of mood on Sister Lovers but even then, it was with a sense of intimacy and direct communication rather than of a world crashing down all around him. Lee admitted some time later that he had some sort of premonition that he was going to die soon and fashioned Forever Changes as a final message; the grandness, loopy philosophies and occasional warning tone of his lyrics seem to bear this out and provide it with a sensation that it's in some strange way a message from a different plane entirely -- nothing more than a subconscious dream, but that's enough to make it truly otherworldly.

These "final words" of Lee's -- in fact, he lived on until 2006 after a chaotic, frustrating life and career -- are really a summing up of alienation, one reason the record so strongly resonates across the generations of the alt-rock crowd, but they are also at times frustratingly oblique and startlingly ugly. ("Oh, the snot has caked against my pants / It has turned into crystal.") Rants like the one that climaxes "A House Is Not a Motel," which leads up to an atypically belligerent electric guitar explosion, are not uncommon: "And the waters turned to blood, and if you don't think so go turn on your tub, and if it's mixed with mud you see it turn to gray, and you can call my name." Tom Verlaine would later apply some of this kind of urgent surrealism with only a vague sensation of underlying logic to his lyrics for Television. Perhaps the mysteriousness is labored, but it's backed up by the music, especially on a song like "The Red Telephone" that applies espionage imagery to an Orwellian nursery rhyme slash apocalyptic treatise that inevitably comes back to sociology: "They're locking them up today / they're throwing away the key / I wonder who it'll be tomorrow, you or me?" and eventually, "we're all normal and we want our freedom."

"The Red Telephone," the loping, insistent "The Daily Planet" and the closing manifesto of advice, threat and celebration "You Set the Scene" are all magnificent songs, but the very best tracks of Forever Changes are those with a certain intimate clarity and simplicity. Lee was heavily influenced by the Byrds, the first true folk-rock band and likely the only mainstream American band to record truly left-field material and manage to get it on the charts in the '60s, and the peaks of this album share that band's fusion of the old-world and the craftily innovative, of protest and personal validation. Bryan Maclean, not Lee, wrote the opening masterpiece "Alone Again Or," an exotic western film score-tinged march infected with mariachi horns and loneliness, passionately sung by Lee. Brass returns just as effectively for the nearly perfect (deep breath) “Maybe the People Would Be the Times, or Between Clark and Hilldale,” a fusion of devastation and joy as moving as anyone’s managed in pop song format, the eventual acrobatic lovemaking between Lee and the horns something that approaches even the vocal theatrics of a Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder record. The Latin overtones of both songs are a far cry from the safety of radio classics “My Little Red Book” or “7 and 7 Is," though the beefy sound of the singles does reappear on the adrenaline-blast "A House Is Not a Motel" and the anthemic, hilarious, sincere romantic woes of "Bummer in the Summer."

"Between Clark and Hilldale" contains Lee's most achingly moving lyrics, directly addressing racial segregation ("moon's a common scene around my town, here where everyone is painted brown, and if we feel that's not the way let's go paint everybody gray") but also an undeniable sense of feeling apart from the world gathering around him even within the oddball context of rock music -- "oh, the music is so loud, and here I fade into the crowd." And again, in one of the most chilling stanzas, there is his belief that he is saying goodbye: "When I leave now don't you weep for me / I'll be back just save a seat for me / And if you just can't make the room / Look up and see me on the..." There are other equally gorgeous songs on the album, but not that connect quite so viscerally. Those others would be Maclean's lovely "Andmoreagain," the nearly unrecognizably Lee-sung "Old Man" and the happily tranquil "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This," all about hummingbirds in the morning and such. But the latter, after another stark but beautiful arrangement by David Angel, is broken up at the end by what sounds like an intentionally glitchy tape. Like a skipping record but more final and disturbing, it sounds like it must have been a mistake, but it's really the sound of faultlines shifting, the earthquake happening, the Lovin' Spoonful-like cheeriness unresolved and broken forever.

Forever Changes disappeared without highly charting or generating much attention for Love, and after one further single the band disbanded; Lee later used the name for various other lineups but while he was clearly the cult of personality that made Love, was the architect of their initial three albums, and produced Forever Changes himself (with Bruce Botnik), it was never the same. In a way this is appropriate; even if it was at the time the falling tree no one heard, the album feels like a culmination of Lee's sensibility and of the conflicting ideals and realities of the '60s as a whole. There was no better way to "tell it like it was," at least in California; perhaps Lou Reed did the same for the East Coast, but even he was too protected from the hippie mythos -- and too white, moreover -- to carry Lee's unique perspective of both wonder and disappointment. Lee designed Forever Changes as permanent art and as a self-referential, carefully sequenced piece unto itself -- it's one of the few albums that feels like it irrevocably belongs together without being pretentious or overly practiced in some "concept." Its subtleties, its beauty and its paranoia make it as rich and endlessly revelatory as anything in the rock discography. It still sounds like you're standing on the precipice of something when you hear it, and it still gives you reason to wonder whether that's a good thing or not.

[Includes material from an essay I wrote about the album after first hearing it in 2007, at which point I amusingly wasn't entirely sold on it -- which just goes to show, some things do take time and attention. There are very few pieces of music that mean more to me now.]

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