The cover art of Love’s Forever Changes, a kaleidoscopic mosaic of the group’s faces in the shape of a heart, is one possible indicator as to why the album was a commercial disappointment upon its release in 1967. See, it’s the kind of heart that pumps in your chest, not the cute kind that teenage girl-hippies drew next to flowers and peace symbols in their notebooks. Forever Changes might have been recorded during the Summer of Love, but despite the band’s name and psychedelic iconography, Love was no flower-power act. In fact, the flower vase that lead singer Arthur Lee holds in his hands on the back cover is decidedly broken in two. Lee also happened to be black, and though his friend Jimi Hendrix found success making rock music, Lee’s brand was less of the blues and soul variety and more aligned with the shiny pop style that was closely associated with white bands like the Byrds and the Beatles. But it was Love’s sheer laziness (Lee seemed content with medium-sized L.A. fame—as evidenced by “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale,” his ode to the part of the Sunset Strip where they played his records regularly—and a few of his fellow band members seemed content getting high) that truly prevented them from achieving the same level of national success and notoriety that those bands, as well as Love’s Elektra labelmates the Doors, enjoyed.
Lee’s music was a substantial influence on Hendrix as well as Jim Morrison (just listen to that “All right, yeah!” outburst on “A House Is Not a Motel,” one of the rare moments Lee’s vocals possessed the kind of zeal that could have made him a star); the following year’s Waiting for the Sun found the Doors emulating the softer, more orchestral sound of Forever Changes, which was co-produced by career-long Doors engineer Bruce Botnick. Upon the album’s release, Rolling Stone wrote, “The background orchestration is pleasant and the recording is technically good,” but that same magazine would go on to name Forever Changes one of the greatest albums ever made, alongside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and Pet Sounds. And hell, it might even be better than those albums. Lee’s compositions (as well as the two contributions by band member Bryan MacLean) are as intricate as anything by Brian Wilson, sporting unconventional verse-bridge structures, and David Angel’s arrangements, like the splendid mariachi-band brass of the single “Alone Again Or,” are as fanciful as George Martin’s.
Both Lee and MacLean used their lyrics as a means of searching, but the mystical nature of MacLean’s songs, which drew more directly from 1960s folk artists like Simon & Garfunkel, seemed more hopeful: “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!’” goes the silly-serious hook of “Alone Again Or,” a near-perfect pop song that belongs among the ranks of “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!” With its references to “the light” and “a small brown leather book,” “Old Man” foreshadowed MacLean’s spiritual quest toward Christianity. Lee, who shares a name with an 18th-century American diplomat, was more political, and his preoccupation with death can be attributed to what guitarist John Echols refers to in the liner notes of the album’s 40th anniversary edition as “that war.” A lyric from “A House Is Not a Motel” (“The news today will be the movies for tomorrow/And the water’s turned to blood…And if it’s mixed with mud/You’ll see it turn to gray”) shrewdly recognized the commodification of war, drawing upon a conversation the band had with a Vietnam veteran who disturbingly but beautifully described how red blood and brown earth makes gray.
Lee’s lyrics are at times kooky, but the album’s most outlandish is also its most evocative: “Oh, the snot has caked against my pants/It has turned into crystal.” And on “The Red Telephone,” the seemingly nonsensical coheres into a powerful condemnation of centralized, delegated power, i.e. the President’s ability to start a war or drop a bomb with just one phone call. By song’s end, Lee is living up to his forebear’s name: “We’re all normal and we want our freedom.” Forever Changes authentically captured and reflected hippie culture but with the threat of the draft and the realities of what the band saw on the news every day, songs like “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” also traded in idyllic fantasy: “Summertime’s here and look over there/Flowers everywhere in the morning, in the morning, la da da.” The strings swell until the tape starts to skip and stutter and the illusion disintegrates.
Reality resumes on the aptly titled “Bummer in the Summer,” the album’s most straightforward (and weakest) track. It finds Lee doing a Dylan-esque sing-talk that sounds a lot like rapping to me. And speaking of rap, an alternate mix of the album’s closing suite, “You Set the Scene,” which can be found on both this and the 2001 edition of Forever Changes, includes some previously unheard lyrical freestyling (who said Debbie Harry was the first rocker to do hip-hop?). The 40th anniversary edition also includes alternate mixes of the rest of the album, songs from the band’s follow-up single “Your Mind and We Belong Together”/“Laughing Stock” (which didn’t fare any better than the album), and various previously unreleased material that neither adds nor detracts from what has rightfully become one of the most highly regarded and influential rock records of all time.