Originally released in November of 1967, Forever Changes was not much of a hit. It only made it to #154 on the Billboard album chart and even now still has not been rewarded a gold record. But if it was a failure on the charts -- The Beach Boys beloved Pet Sounds was also a relative chart failure just a few years earlier -- it has transcended its tepid sales to be considered one of the greatest Rock albums of the greatest Rock era.
Led by guitarist Arthur Lee, Love was one of Los Angeles' biggest bands. But Lee's resistance to touring outside of L.A. made sure that the band would never gain the mass popularity of other L.A. groups like The Doors and The Byrds. Perhaps Love didn't have the singles potential to achieve the success of the aforementioned bands, though the band did chart several times, the first coming with a cover of Bacharach and David's "My Little Red Book" in 1965. At any rate, Forever Changes might have been too idiosyncratic for Pop chart success, even in the heady days of 1967.
The album begins with "Alone Again Or" (a minor hit for The Damned in 1986) written and sung by Love's second songwriter Bryan Maclean. The track starts off quietly with a minor key Flamenco guitar figure before Maclean and Lee begin harmonizing on the verse. Although I've never been able to quite put my finger on what bothered me about it, the song's melody has always struck me as a little off kilter. This might in part be explained by a revelation in Ben Edmonds' liner notes. According to Maclean, who died in 1999 at the age of 52, the song was mixed with the harmony vocal (Arthur Lee's vocal) as the dominant voice in the mix, thus the melody is virtually buried. Still, it's a great if curious sounding track, with it's somber atmosphere, enigmatic lyrics and surprising Tijuana horns.
The album stays in a minor key for second track, "A House is not a Motel." Largely an acoustic track, which could be said of the whole record, the song is highlighted by an extended electric guitar jam and the apocalyptic lyric "And the water's turned to blood. If you don't think so, go turn on your tub."
One of the album's prettiest tracks "Andmoreagain" would not sound out of place on the Bee Gees Odessa LP -- another album worthy of a remastering makeover, as are all of the early Bee Gees records. It's jazzy major seventh chords and sophisticated melody sound like the stuff of Barry Gibb, and Lee's warbled vocal is a dead ringer for Barry's brother Robin.
Bryan Maclean contributes one more track to the album, the ballad "Old Man," before Arthur Lee's "The Red Telephone" closes what would have originally been side one. Strings and harpsichord frame Lee's cryptic lyrics about sitting on a hillside watching people die, and the track ends with a singsong chant about the loss of freedom. It might sound like standard hippie business, but as the liner notes suggest, there is something affecting in the song's alienation.
Side two opens with "Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale." The track features a fine, easy vocal by Lee, with pounding drums, trumpets and more acoustic guitars. It is one of the album's more exhilarating tracks.
"Bummer in the Summer" is a two-chorder with fast, talking-blues verses, martial drums and a Bo Diddley beat in the chorus. If the mood is more rarified elsewhere on the LP, "Bummer in the Summer" gives off the most attitude.
The album closes with "You Set the Scene," a nearly seven-minute song featuring more of Love's ironic optimism. "This is the time and life that I am living, and I'll face each day with a smile," sings Lee over a background of trumpets and a steady back beat.
Highlights of the bonus tracks include tracking sessions from Love's last single, "Your Mind and We Belong Together," with plenty of studio chatter from Arthur Lee, who clearly didn't mind taking his band mates to task. The single and its b-side, "Laughing Stock" close out the 18-track disc.
As great as it is, Forever Changes doesn't really transcend its time period. Not that that is the measure of a good album, but it is perhaps the measure of an absolute classic. Sgt. Pepper's or even The Doors first seem to be at home in any decade since the '60s. Forever Changes, however, does not have the uncanny ability of some records to change with the times. Nevertheless, Forever Changes is nearly essential as an artifact of its time and as a collection of great music.