Counterbalance No. 49

Love’s 'Forever Changes'

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

2 September 2011

Sometimes we deal in numbers, and if you want to count Love, count them Number 49 on Acclaimed Music's Great List. We're all normal and we want our freedom.
cover art


Forever Changes

US: Nov 1967

Klinger: Well, time once again for a critics’ favorite that’s managed to remain under the radar for the vast majority of the population. I think it’s safe to say that sales of Love’s Forever Changes have been almost entirely driven by critical accolades since its release in 1967—I know it’s why I bought a copy. But I’d like to propose one of my completely hypothetical unprovable theories: If Love had been more willing to tour in the 1960s, their commercial success would have been far greater, and right now Forever Changes would be higher up on the Great List than the Doors’ first album. By encapsulating both the sunny brightness of the LA Sunset Strip scene and its seamy underbelly, Forever Changes accomplishes what The Doors attempted, without any of Jim Morrison’s silliness.

Mendelsohn: I completely disagree with your completely hypothetical and unprovable theory. There is no way Forever Changes could have eclipsed The Doors if Love had only hit the road for an extended tour of the American heartland. The reason is simple: Forever Changes is laughably inferior to The Doors (which is saying something when I consider The Doors to be laughable and inferior). Sure, Love my have succeeded at distilling the essence of the Sunset Strip onto a slab of vinyl but they also managed to preserve the feeling of being clubbed about the head with paisley-patterned and patchouli-scented batons. The Doors were all whiskey breath and cigarette smoke, which is timeless and I can take it in small doses—it’s like having to talk to Uncle Bob at family reunions. It’s fun for a minute because he’s hammered, boring toward the middle as he goes on an extended solo, and then it ends abruptly because he needs a refill. I’m fine with that; however, I’m not pleased about being covered head-to-toe in psychedelic-colored, flower power vomit.
Klinger: Hang on, Mendelsohn, I think there’s been some mistake. We’re supposed to be reviewing Love’s Forever Changes, not the Strawberry freakin’ Alarm Clock. Whatever “flower power vomit” you got on yourself didn’t come from Arthur Lee, Bryan MacLean, and Co. (of course, one cannot dust for vomit). There’s very little that’s groovy about Love’s vision of mid-‘60s L.A., even if it is all dolled up in a brightly wrapped package. And I think that should hit you right from the opening track. “Alone Again Or” might allude to free love, but it’s coming from the poor schmuck who’s left to brood while his chick is off “being in love with almost anyone” (probably with that lothario David Crosby, if I were a betting man). Don’t let the mariachi trumpets fool you—this is an album by some guys who were on the brink of some pretty serious paranoia.

Mendelsohn: I will rescind my “flower-power vomit” comment, but I stand by the “paisley-patterned and patchouli-scented batons” edict. This album is dated, my friend, and I’m having extreme difficulty looking past the brightly-colored package to see anything aside from a record that was produced in the 1960s and probably should have stayed there. Maybe you haven’t noticed but I’m not exactly patient enough to listen to what the singer is saying if I’m not thrilled by the way he’s playing the guitar. Arthur Lee may be paranoid but I’m just annoyed—by the endless parade of clichéd 1960s musical tropes that fill out this record.

Klinger: It’s curious to me that you call this “dated”—I prefer to say that it’s “clearly evocative of its time and place”. Yes, it sounds like a record from the ‘60s, but I don’t hear much in the way of clichés. Forever Changes combines the go-go dancin’ sounds of the Sunset Strip with gentler folk rock (which seems to my ears to be mainly attributable to guitarist Bryan MacLean—his “Andmoreagain” is certainly the most overt example), and I’m really not sure what else in the ‘60s rock pantheon we can really compare this album to. Throw in the fact that there are moments on here that are just genuinely unnerving. I have often found myself a little freaked out by the fade-out to “The Red Telephone” and I haven’t even been into the glaucoma medicine.

So I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to be a little more specific here. What are you hearing on Forever Changes that you find clichéd?

Mendelsohn: Klinger, it’s all cliché and you’ve done half the work for me. Go-go dancing? Check. Gentle folk? Check. Gratuitous string and/or horn arrangements? Check. Trippy lyrics? Check. One or two extended electric guitar solos? Check. Now all we need is a bunch of doe-eyed, half-naked hippies doing the noodle dance in a meadow. You know the one—where they just hold their arms above their heads and sway back and forth like limp spaghetti.

The song arrangements and production scream 1960s. I can’t fault them for the soft production values—not everybody got to work with George Martin—but there is a certain sound, shall we say, that plagued the 1960s rock scene and it had a lot to do with the gentle folk-strumming that seems to ooze out of the cracks of this record.  There’s even that cadence that too many 1960s folk rock singers employed, and this album doesn’t seem to be exempt from that, either. Very staccato. Reminds me of my music teacher beating out a rhythm with wooden blocks. Ta Ta Ti Ti Ta. Makes me wonder if she was into the glaucoma medicine. Those clichés are splashed all over this record from “Alone Again Or” all the way to “You Set the Scene”, although I do love the little bit of soul singing that slips in for a few seconds in that song.

If I don’t particularly like a record, I normally don’t have any trouble understanding why it might be important. I don’t get that with this record. I don’t necessarily dislike it, but I’m having a hard time seeing the importance of this album. The albums on the Great List are game-changers, era-breakers, or grand artist statements. If it’s not a bag of musical clichés from the 1960s, then where does it fit in?

Klinger: Well, I hate to sound like an old-timey hippie, but you’re not listening to the words, man. To be honest, I think that Lee’s lyrics are what sets Forever Changes apart from a lot of the other music of that time. You write it off as “trippy”, but he’s not just cranking out the usual “peppermint kittens float through the transoms of my consciousness” psychedelic nonsense. His lyrics are pretty strikingly upfront, and even when he’s being more obscure, he famously comes up with “Oh the snot has caked around my pants / It has turned into crystal”, which might be gross and even puerile, but it isn’t cliché. And as an African-American musician working in a primarily white genre, Lee not surprisingly (or maybe kind of surprisingly) touches on issues of race, but there are also some relatively early and explicit anti-war sentiments here and plenty of commentary on the scene.

I’d say that Forever Changes, then, is personal enough to count as just the kind of artistic statement that often ends up on this list. I’d say what separates it from the other grand statements is that it didn’t sell especially well in the U.S. (although it did chart in the U.K.), and they weren’t able to build on the critical momentum that was building up behind them. So maybe it’s a grand artistic statement where you don’t care all that much about the artistry or his statementry?

Mendelsohn: OK, so Lee could write a little bit, but being good with a pen does not a great album make. And I’m still not seeing above-average artistry or statementry. Jimi Hendrix was also a black man trying to make his way in the white man’s rock world. And I’m pretty sure Bob Dylan was making disparaging remarks about the war pretty early on as well. Add on the fact that Lee is not an especially strong singer and I’m at a loss. Yes, the same thing could be said about Dylan and Hendrix but they made up for that shortcoming in some pretty striking ways. This album is like one of those magic pictures—no matter how hard I cross my eyes, I’m still not seeing it.

Klinger: Clearly we could go round and round about this, and I suspect we will even after this edition of Counterbalance is over (much like the way Siskel and Ebert appeared to continue arguing as the credits began rolling). But even if you’re right that Dylan had a lot to say about Vietnam or that Hendrix made his race a public issue (and I respectfully disagree on both counts), I don’t see how either of those points detracts from the achievement of Forever Changes.

Either way, it’s a shame that you can’t get this magic eye puzzle to work. Because the longer I stare at it, the more vivid the picture becomes.

Topics: arthur lee | love
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