Saturday, April 08, 2017

Forever Changes (1967)

I've never had a really good perspective on this album, partly because it's another classic I came to late, when I was self-educating and attempting to fill gaps thanks to infatuations with Dave Marsh's and then Robert Christgau's album guides of the late '70s and early '80s. That was also the time, for example, when I really became acquainted with the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, The Velvet Underground & Nico, and the Dolly Parton collection with "Down From Dover." This problem of perspective among our rock critics, by the way, only becomes more complicated as the years go by. For an era of music conventionally taken as beginning the year I was born, 1955, the game of catch-up only becomes more and more tricky. When you are born in 1999, say, that history is inevitably going to become flattened and distorted (if indeed you are even interested, as "rock" and/or "rock 'n' roll" seem to be going the way of jazz this century, a topic for study by monkish types). Certainly later perspectives are going to be different from those formed by people experiencing things in real time.

Forever Changes by Love, this album and band I had never heard of in 1980, was heralded as brilliant and essential by Marsh, in spite of its commercial failure, a sentiment echoed by others once I started to look into it—about the band, its driving force Arthur Lee, and this specific album. So I put it on my list. I found a copy somewhere. I played it and was struck mostly by how quiet it is. It's almost weightless in a way—strummed acoustic guitars, Lee's warbling muffled murmuring vocals, with low budget drum kit efficiencies pushed to the rear, unexpected accompaniment by strings and horns, and once in a while a breakout electric guitar. I thought it was a strange way to approach psychedelic acid-rock (which appeared to be the favored niche) as opposed to the sheets and walls of sculpted noise I was used to that term signifying from Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, the Who, Cream, etc. I puzzled over Forever Changes for a few weeks, fussing with it and waiting for it to click, but it looked like it might be one I'd have to file under "don't get." We all have a few of those—another one of those niggling rock critic problems.

Anyway, at some point in the years since then I have arrived at a love that surpasseth all understanding for Lee and Love and especially this album. I'm not sure exactly how it's insinuated itself so much, but I'm tempted to account for it with the simple and sturdy tunefulness. All these songs are bristling with melodies and put together continually spiraling toward a superconscious intensity. This is often relieved in turn with rocking solos that jump out at you—in the first two songs alone, that's a mariachi trumpet on "Alone Again Or" (written by Bryan MacLean though nearly all the others here are by Lee) and transcendent electric guitar on "A House Is Not a Motel." It's all somewhat at odds with the quiet instrumentation but there's no formula to it really.

Sometimes, as in the awkwardly titled, "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale," they use the elements almost playfully, with the horns and vocals calling to one another back and forth in irresistible moments, and then some rudimentary picking on the good old stand-by acoustic guitar joins in. "Andmoreagain" is built on a nursery rhyme ballad sweetened by strings, but with a deliberate start-and-stop tempo that subtly winds it up to a fine point. "Live and Let Live," one of the best songs here, starts with "Oh the snot has caked against my pants" and inexorably drives forward to the business of a great solo built on more stop and start momentum. "The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This" achieves a similar effect with stuttering studio trickery toward the end.

I guess it also helps to know (though it's never mattered much to me) that Arthur Lee, an African American and a Los Angeles resident by way of Memphis, was officially dubious in 1967 about the summer of love, flower power, hippie children, and all that. Like Frank Zappa, but not quite as articulate and with his own bag musically. For me, as I say, these themes barely intrude—even the line about snot-caked pants. The whole album passes blissfully, asserting itself in new and changing ways, and it can be remarkably resilient for daily play. Its little surprises continue to surprise or new ones crop up, and you almost start to wait with your whole body for the turns and changes as these songs perhaps become overfamiliar, yet rarely anything less than fresh. Put the album away. Take it out a few years later. How did they do this? It's even better. This has been going on awhile.

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