America raced heatedly westward, found Los Angeles waiting, and devoured itself. I think that’s what Arthur Lee was saying. Right?
1967 Forever Changes is a revelation. Echoing down the canyons and across the dusty, sun-baked pavement of the coast, Lee’s modern apocalypticism is arch but optimistic, the voice of a man eager to cultivate a new world but not before reducing everything to rubble.
In the melting pot of Southern California, Lee walked among the hippies and dwellers of the barrio. Briefly in the Summer of Love, he couldn’t decide whether to join or condemn them. Forever Changes is the sound of a man–a band–determinedly dismantling the achievements that had put him in that position. His band Love was pulling apart, and their refusal to tour imploded their success, but Lee was too autocratic and willful to let success get in the way of making the music he felt anyway.
The album is strung from one end to the other with a churning mixture of wavering resolve, apprehension, confusion, hope, and comaraderie among misfits. In angle and sentiment, it varies little from Love’s previous LP, Da Capo (also from ’67), but Forever Changes has the more deeply layered heart of a man recording his last will and testament. Indeed, Lee said of the album, “I thought I was going to die at that particular time, so those were my last words.” It is indeed a kind of last hurrah. The Love lineup that produced the sound of these classic albums would collapse soon after, and no Love LP would capture the same spark again.
Where “The Daily Planet” bemoans tedium, agitating for something, anything, new to move on to, Lee still boasts of his little community in “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” Contradictions abound; condemnation is bred from understanding, though great comfort is found there too. Though society on the whole is burning to the ground (“The Red Telephone”), little pieces of joy still twinkle brightly (“The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This”).
Forever Changes is a sterling achievement because, like many other sterling achievements, it raises so many issues, so many problems, presents them from a singular point of view (well, most singular–there are two Bryan MacLean songs, which complement the rest amply), and practically relishes its inability to resolve anything. The end track, “You Set the Scene,” gathers everything from the preceding 36 minutes–the ups, the downs, the smiles, the freak-outs–and arrays them attractively by one another.
There’s an ascending feeling of resolution, a sense of realization, but ultimately Arthur Lee just walks off. He asks the requisite questions, makes a few observations, but in the end just throws up his hands. Toward the end of the song is a line as telling as anything on the album: I want to love you, but oh… It echoes into halting dissolution, with Lee longing to embrace his world but still dismayed by its failings. And then soon afterward the album is swept to a close by a pageantry of lush strings and horns. “You Set the Scene”–and by extension, Forever Changes–is traced by darkness but churning within with great wonder, presumably precisely as Arthur Lee felt it.