Nine years ago today (apparently), I posted the first of almost but not quite 100 CD reviews on Amazon.com. To commemorate that red-letter day in music criticism, here is that review, complete with what I am sure were ultimately ineffectual attempts to take The Beatles down a notch.
I remember that hot and sunny July 4th in the year 2002. Having read more than enough about how great this CD was, I headed up to Harvard Square early in the afternoon determined to buy this CD, which I had never heard a single note of. When I got home, put it in my CD player, and heard the gentle, tip-toeing opening notes of “Alone Again Or,” my life forever changed.
There is something way too beautiful about this CD. (Or, more correctly, there are too many beautiful things about this CD.) It sounds like nothing I had ever heard before or have heard since, and is, to the extent that such a thing can be ascertained, one of the greatest CDs ever recorded.
Released in 1967, Forever Changes has the general sound and feel of a hippie record. That is, it is easy to guess it was recorded in the late 60s. However, it is a bit too dark at times to have been written by hippies. The lyrics are often ominous and apocalyptic, eg, “And the water’s turned to blood, and if you don’t think so, go turn on your tub” and “They’re locking me up today, they’re throwing away the key, I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me.” The clearest indictment of the hippie mentality, however, occurs on the first track, the impeccably beautiful “Alone Again Or”: “Yeah, I heard a funny thing/Somebody said to me/’You know that I could be in love/With almost everyone./I think that people are the greatest fun.’/And I will be alone again tonight my dear.” Note that the singer is quoting someone else in between the lyrics “You know” and “the greatest fun.” It is clear from the song that he is too in love with one particular person to be in love with everyone. And when Arthur Lee sings “The news today will be the movies for tomorrow,” he is clearly resigned to the fact that the scars of wars never heal, even after the wars themselves have ended. (So much for peace and love.)
“Alone Again Or” – written by the band’s guitarist, Bryan Maclean, who also wrote the gorgeous “Old Man” – is surely one of the greatest opening tracks on any CD. (If it is not enough to convince you that you are in for a real treat, go ahead and stop listening.) The opening notes of the song, though quiet and nonintrusive, sound soaring, and are enough to give a robot a spine-tingling sensation. The harmonies on the song are warm, embracing, and ever-so-slightly subdued (and put to shame some of the annoying harmonies found on Rubber Soul). The song’s strings underscore the song’s melancholy lyrics, while the trumpets – which get the solo – provide a musical accentuation of the aforementioned vocals.
While this song alone is worth the price of admission, the entire CD is a cup that runneth over. While soft and gentle – but at times ominous – acoustic riffs and arpeggios are sprinkled generously throughout, Love doesn’t forget the value and power of an electric guitar, as demonstrated on “A House is Not A Motel” and “Live and Let Live.” The brass and strings – on “Alone Again Or,” “Old Man,” “You Set the Scene,” and elsewhere – adorn each song in an unpretentious and unforced way that The Beatles could have only dreamed of when they made Sgt. Pepper.
The lyrics always sound emotional and sincere when sang in Arthur Lee’s fragile and ghostly voice, whether they are all-too-simple (“And you don’t know how much I love you”, “I feel shivers in my spine”), or slightly more profound (“Served my time/Served it well/You made my soul/A cell”, “There’s a man who can’t decide if he should fight for what his father thinks is right.”) Sometimes, alas, the lyrics are too obscure for their own good: “I feel real phoney when my name is Phil,” “I believe in magic, Why?/Because it is so quick,” and the classic “The snot has caked against my pants.”
But perhaps lyrics such as these just add to the eccentricity of the CD, as they always sound poetic and interesting. Only on a CD as strange and beautiful as this one would such lyrics be forgivable. And Love manages to deal with the overdone themes of popular music (unrequited love, uncontrollable lust, etc) in refreshingly unique ways on “Alone Again Or,” “Andmoreagain, “and “Bummer in the Summer.”
The only problem that I have ever had with this CD is the first two tracks are so powerful that they threatened to overwhelm the entire disc, and I sometimes had trouble moving beyond them. And while “Alone Again Or” will always be one of my all-time favorite songs, I have since learned the folly of my ways.
I would like to say that anyone with an ear for great music will like this CD. However, any record that is as unique as this one is bound to not sit well with some people, and that I can forgive that. It does not spoonfeed it virtues to the listener the way punk or power pop does. Its appeal is simply not obvious enough to be widespread. One will either sink into this CD as if it were quicksand, or it will just sound too unexpected to be likable. It is, whether you like it or not, one of the greatest masterpieces of popular music, even if it isn’t right up there with The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 or Michael Jackson’s Thriller in terms of sales. And don’t let the constant references to minor-key acoustic guitars and apocalyptic lyrics scare you. This CD has always made me feel like I was sitting atop a mountain on a sunny day in California, even though I had never been there until eight months after I bought it. Having been there since, Forever Changes always takes me right back.
(PS – The remastered edition with seven bonus tracks – including alternate takes and 3 songs that did not apprear on the original record – is the one to get, and is well worth whatever extra money you will spend on it. And I recently saw Arthur Lee perform live with a new band in Boston. The whole of Forever Changes was played, along with at least a half-dozen other Love nuggets. I met him and got his autograph after the show. I am a happier person nowadays. – firstname.lastname@example.org)