Love’s third album mystified both the band’s ardent fans and the scene’s founding rockwriters almost from the day it appeared in November 1967. On first listen, with its many glosses of strings and horns, Forever Changes seemed muted, safe, dangerously close to the dread adult pop. Where was the aggressive Byrds-cum-Stones churn of 1966’s Love, the stunningly melodic folk-rock gems of early ’67’s Da Capo? Sandy Pearlman, in the March-April 1968 issue of Crawdaddy!, wondered if his special Love had “come face to face with the spirit of Muzak,” yet still found Forever Changes “incredibly beautiful . . . in its own very, very odd way.” In April 1968, Beatrice Wayne’s review in Hearst’s splashy new Eye chimed in with primordial rock criticism’s favorite pejorative: “Like Muzak in the elevator, this album is elevated Muzak.” But she too recognized the inevitable if quirky redemption on Forever Changes: “Rather than contemplating for us, [Arthur Lee] speaks most eloquently when he’s putting us down. Well, that’s Love.”
In her own flippantly epigrammatic way, Ms. Wayne was on to something there. In Forever Changes, Love’s resident genius, Arthur Lee, who’d already created and lived the black hippie persona his friend Jimi Hendrix would take to the heavens, had now written a broken-vase-of-flower-power eulogy for the Summer of Love, from its very heart. Lee hadn’t necessarily foreseen the political and cultural cataclysms that would wilt the decade’s promise so savagely in 1968; instead, that acid-washed summer convinced him that he wouldn’t survive 1967, so he composed the songs on Forever Changes as if they might be his “last words to this life.” Arthur Lee’s shiver of impending mortality informs the entire album, gives it that seductive, seamless mix of beauty and terror that many who were there in late 1967 were beginning to feel: coming in streaks of color, and then recalling (in a pain right up the shaft) that the War and its draft were still going on. Forever Changes held a message of dread up to those pretty melodies, found the void behind the Carnaby faces of those pastel vocals and guitars. As such, Forever Changes is the truest portrait of steamy 1967 that rock has granted us.
Though it’s haunted by Vietnam and other particularly American traumas, Forever Changes has been more popular and influential in England than in its own land. In response, Rhino Records’ cofounder Harold Bronson, a dedicated Love follower during his L.A. youth, has repeatedly gifted us with new facets of the band’s audio legend. Now Elektra/Rhino has issued an expanded, remastered Forever Changes, with seven additional cuts of related songs and demos, and a booklet full of candid 1967 photos of the band members, including one of a sweetly smiling Arthur Lee sitting at the wheel of a posh sports car and subtly giving photog Bryan MacLean the finger.
The compilers of the latest reissue were able to unearth only a few so-far-unheard fragments from the creation of the forever perfect Forever Changes, but one is an actual outtake—the fully finished “Wonder People (I Do Wonder),” a love song as gorgeous as anything on the album, yet without the ominous undertone of the other songs (perhaps accounting for its 1967 exile). It’s trippy visual music, as though Lee had just been commissioned to write the theme for That Girl. And “Hummingbirds” is a 1966 instrumental prototype of Forever Changes‘ “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This,” the earlier cut a naked-blond showcase of the acoustic-guitar thrash that would distinguish the 1967 album’s whole sound.
The Forever Changes track best known in the marketplace thus far is its opener, the lilting “Alone Again Or.” I’ve heard it both in a Miller beer commercial and in the ambient none-dare-call-it-Muzak mix while dining at Wendy’s. Arthur Lee’s main whiteguy foil and collaborator within Love, Bryan MacLean (McCartney to Lee’s even-more-prickly Lennon), had written “Alone Again Or,” so he had first dibs on the vocal. But then he disowned the finished cut because someone (probably Arthur) had remixed the tape so that Lee’s harmony overwhelms MacLean’s lead. Bryan spent the rest of his life re-recording the song in various solo versions, to show how he thought it should sound. The new set helpfully restores an alternate 1967 mix, with MacLean’s vocal much more evident; it provides a tangy new texture, yet also reveals how much stronger and smoother Lee’s vocal is.
Also included is a rejected version of the album’s already climactic “You Set the Scene,” with a bizarre Arthur Lee vocal eruption cutting across the final chorus; he sounds like he’s rapping. And the excerpts from the “Your Mind and We Belong Together” tracking sessions are revealing probes into the band’s working dynamics, not just in showing off Arthur Lee’s studio perfectionism, but in capturing a few of his soft-voiced but cutting (same tone as the album itself) hipster comments: “Listen, [John] Echols, man, I don’t understand your trip, man!” But the band finally got it together to Lee’s satisfaction to complete “Your Mind and We Belong Together” and its flip, “Laughing Stock”—the included-here 1968 side that would turn out to be the final recording of Love’s classic lineup from their first three albums. Thus the new reissue documents both Forever Changes‘ expressive peak and its abortive afterglow. Bryan MacLean and bassist Ken Forssi have died in recent years, while Lee remains existential to a fault, as he’s now serving his fifth year in his own Golden State Gethsemane, Pleasant Valley State Prison.
(Memo to California governor Gray Davis upon the reissue of the Greatest Rock Album of All Time: Go ahead and keep the sublime Arthur Lee locked up on that questionable “third strike” conviction. But bear in mind that while God sees everything like this, He’s not necessarily a good humor man.)
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 17, 2001