Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
On a recent episode of the WTF podcast with Marc Maron, Paul Thomas Anderson mused on what he thought the central themes of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice were, and talked a bit about how he tried to translate them to the screen. Anderson can be evasive about the meaning behind his art—what artist isn’t, really?—but he touches on an intriguing idea. When Maron asks him what the convoluted Inherent Vice is even about, Anderson is quick to reply: “Pynchon.” Elaborating, he states that the book, and Anderson’s film adaptation, is largely about how the cultural transition from the ’60s to the ’70s left a lot of people, from stoners to cops to writers, feeling lost. As broad a statement as this is, the ’60s represented hope and love and freedom for a lot of people in America. Then the ’70s came, along with Richard Nixon, increasing class division, and the horrific height of the Vietnam War, which all contributed to a mood of cynicism and paranoia.
Considering how politics and music were intertwined in the ’60s, it’s no surprise that many folk, rock, and R&B acts reacted to the changing in cultural climate with similar cynicism. The dreamy folk ballads and syrupy pop hits certainly didn’t capture the mood of the nation anymore. As the optimistic vision of the ’60s began to fade, the art, whether it was literature or music or anything else, begins to reflect that downfall. The best record to come out of such turmoil—Love’s 1967 record Forever Changes—is ambitious and prescient, reflecting the cultural shift of the dying ’60s, while tapping into the paranoia that would soon permeate much of American culture in the next decade. Both lyrically and musically, Forever Changes is a snapshot of a turbulent America.
The two albums that preceded Forever Changes were solid, if unremarkable slices of tangy folk-rock. With The Byrds as a clear influence, Love had crafted two albums—a self-titled debut and 1967’s Da Capo—of weaving, reverb-laden guitar lines and trippy psychedelia. These rock albums befitted the time, perfectly in line with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane. Spearheaded by the songwriting of Arthur Lee, the band was making waves as a notable outfit that was blending styles and genres like few others. As successful and acclaimed as those first two records were, Forever Changes, released only a few months after Da Capo, stands out as a true masterpiece.
In those few short months between Da Capo and Forever Changes, something shifted for Love. It’s said that during the recording sessions, much of the band was so out of its mind on drugs and alcohol that it couldn’t function in the studio. Thus, Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean, the two primary songwriters, did much of the writing and producing, and enlisted various local session musicians to play on the songs. The band had also recently booted out two members, only further bolstering the turmoil present during the recording. Rock mythology suggests that such dynamic shifts in personnel, amplified by the ongoing tension between Lee and MacLean (who each wanted more of their own songs on the records), allows for a unique creative workspace and often results in a final product injected with passion and angst.
Forever Changes, for all of its gorgeous balladry, layered acoustic guitars, and silky string arrangements, is filled with passion and angst. 1967 may have been The Summer Of Love, but Forever Changes dismantles any notions of free love and social change. Opening track “Alone Again Or” boasts the overtly hippie line “You know that I could be in love with almost everyone.” Love pulls off a bait-and-switch though, undercutting that line just moments later with, “and I will be alone again tonight, my dear,” a line that closes every verse and positions the album as one of isolation and disconnect.
Those themes run through just about every track. The wonderfully dark “A House Is Not A Motel” is the most rock-oriented song, complete with blazing guitar solos that underscore the lyrical exploration of the chaos and inhumanity of war. “The Red Telephone” sounds a lot like Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, but rather than boasting mystical imagery, dives into themes of race, imprisonment, and death. “Sitting on a hillside / Watching all the people die,” sings Lee, his smooth voice and the whimsical arrangement completely at odds with the somber lyricism. Then there’s the shuffling, spastic “Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale,” which is just as vicious and unrelenting as anything else on the album, a treatise on the futility of the sentimentality that defined The Summer Of Love, and specifically Los Angeles, where Lee had spent most of his life.
It’s not going too far out on a limb to suggest that Forever Changes feels so different from typical Summer Of Love albums because of Arthur Lee. A black musician in touch with the political and cultural situation of the time and part of a largely white music scene, Lee was clearly exhausted by the endless optimism. He was fronting a band that couldn’t stay sober and watching the Vietnam War grow more and more despicable. Where was the love and sense of community? The Summer Of Love was a lie that Lee needed to expose.
The musical arrangements, drawing from folk, classical, and psych rock, while also paving the way for prog rock, capture the paranoia and dread of the times just as acutely as the lyrics do. Very few songs have a linear structure; even when the songs contain recognizable verses and breaks, they hardly offer up hooks, choruses, or repeated phrases. Rather, Forever Changes works like a suite of songs, each track blending into the next while Lee and MacLean hop through genres in order to express a variety of anxieties. Whether it’s the orchestral pomp and circumstance of “You Set The Scene” or the layered 12-string guitars of “Live And Let Live,” the arrangements are constructed so as to be disorienting. The album is largely accessible, but also daunting in its ability to take cheery arrangements and use them to magnify the tension and paranoia at the heart of every song.
As much as Forever Changes dismissed the ideology of The Summer Of Love, it’s hardly a period piece or a dusty historical document. Listening to the album today, the same ugliness that Lee saw in the world around him still permeates our culture. There’s a staggering economic divide built upon a system of oppression and power imbalance. There are still structures in place meant to vilify the underprivileged and hold up those with the most access to capital. Forever Changes isn’t just an indictment of the rosy vision of the ’60s; it’s a stunning indictment of humanity’s consistent need to cover up the misdeeds of the past in favor of a glorified vision of the future.