Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Greatest Album Ever

Of all the albums released in the summer of 1967, ‘none caught the strangeness of those days, or captured their combination of beauty and dread, quite like Love’s Forever Changes.’ [1] Contradictions abound across the eleven tracks of this album, both musically and lyrically. Luscious string arrangements are suddenly punctuated by insistent horns; a jingly harpsichord heralds the creeping onset of doom. Words are layered over one another, flow into each other, lead off into unexpected directions. On the opening track, ‘Alone Again Or’, what appears to be a sentiment straight from the Summer of Love, ‘I could be in love with almost anyone’, is stopped just short of a universal endorsement of the human race, while the line that follows, ‘I will be alone again tonight, my dear’, itself stops just short of reputing it. Song titles obliquely refer to the tracks they are assigned to, simultaneously illuminating and mystifying their subject matter. Instruments wander in to change a track’s direction mid-stream and then fade away, yet you can still hum the melodies to yourself hours after you’ve turned the record off.

All well and good, but what does it all mean, and just who were Love anyway? They were an ever-changing psychedelic rock combo from Los Angeles, headed by the reclusive Arthur Lee, the self-professed ‘first black hippie’. While they were reasonably well-known in L.A. they had only a couple of minor hits on the national charts, which has been attributed to Lee’s refusal to tour. ‘By Forever Changes – when I did that album, I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words…,’ said Lee, ‘I just had a funny feeling.’ The final track on the album, ‘You Set The Scene’ contains the most explicit expression of this ‘feeling’: ‘I’ll face each day with a smile/ For the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while/ And the things that I must do consist of more than style.’ Although, in light of words like these, it’s tempting to view Forever Changes as primarily being Lee’s final testament, I think the way it really operates is to show how death and destruction pervade life, and vice versa. Water turns to blood (‘A House Is Not A Motel’); the teeming life of the Go-Stop Boulevard is filled with ‘sirens and... accidents’ (‘The Daily Planet’). Yet there is a hint of pleasant resignation in Lee’s voice when he sings about ‘Sitting on the hillside/ Watching all the people… die,’ on the semi-apocalyptic ‘The Red Telephone’. Forever Changes may be a dark album, but it is far from a dismal one.

The album didn’t fare too well on either side of the Atlantic, and it’s fair to say that if it weren’t for the swell of critical appreciation that has attached itself to it, few people would know of it today. So does that simply make it the ‘hip’ choice for the greatest album ever for assorted music snobs? In a funny sort of way: yes. Because the album never gets any radio airplay and your average punter doesn’t know about it, listening to Forever Changes is like discovering a lost treasure, and even after repeated listens this feeling remains. The aura of mystery that surrounds it would dissipate if we had heard it as often as the Beatles or the Stones. (Which is not to say that I’ve uncovered a hidden gem here: the New Musical Express placed the album at #6 on its list of the 100 greatest albums ever in ‘03.) But forget all that, pretend that I haven’t built it up, and just leave it in the back of your consciousness in case you happen to come across it in a shop one day. And then pick it up and ask yourself: why not? You only live and die once…

[1] Ben Edmonds: notes for Forever Changes CD release.

No comments: