(WARNING: this post contains subjective assessments)
The problem with writing about a ‘classic’ album, is finding something new to say, something that might stimulate the passing reader. I first encountered the word “inchoate”** in a description of the subject of this post, so that was not bad, I suppose.
The second concern is that most so-called classics are, or have become, almost tedious. The majority were grossly overpraised in the first place – Rubber Soul, everything by U2, in fact, nearly every Beatles album. It becomes a self-perpetuating mythology after a while, and nobody dares step out of line. Tedium also sets in with overfamiliarity. There are only so many times you can listen to something genuinely amazing at first, second, tenth listens, before it starts to go in one ear and out the other. I still like The Dark Side of the Moon, but hearing it once every five years, say, is more than enough.
It’s the same with classical and jazz. In fact, having great music on in the background is a destructive act. It’s like you’re insulting Beethoven, for example. Better to have silence than that.
But…there are a few works of man that truly do defy these ground rules. If I stick to the non classical or jazz stuff – however pretentious it makes me sound, I hate the trite words of ‘rock’. or ‘pop’ – then there’s a few that fit this description. A very small few: No Other; Countdown to Ecstasy; Secret Treaties spring to mind. These are whole albums. Every song is right, and they tend to mesh together perfectly, almost as if forming a suite. Plenty of groups have one or two stupendous songs, but that’s a different thing altogether.
There is no point in bleeding the thesaurus looking for new adjectives to avoid repeating the very many reviews of this masterpiece (for example 1,2,3,4,5). Rather I would point to its unique ambience, a blend of sweetness and cynicism, unearthly beauty and ugliness. The album with the finest use of orchestration I’ve heard outwith classical music, mixes it with abrupt changes, occasionally weird tunings, swooning vocals and proto-rapping: chaos and structure.
The air of golden Californian decadence and decay that it engenders reminds me of Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs (don’t look if you’re easily upset) – the equivalent of flies and maggots emerging from beneath overripe fruit. Arthur Lee (aided by Bryan MacLean in particular) really was different.
This theme collided with real life when the band members became embroiled in crime, drugs and illness. Arthur served more than 5 years in jail for a firearms offence on the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ rule in California at the time. He went back to touring when he got out and I was lucky, I got to see him with a band and orchestra perform all of Forever Changes at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh in 2003 (the DVD of the tour is here). They were quite brilliant, but after the show, there was no way Arthur was going to meet the fans. He was out of there like a shot. Three years later he was dead, of acute myeloid leukaemia.
To quote from one of the sweetest songs on the album: the time that I’ve been given’s such a little while, and in his short 61 years, Arthur achieved more than nearly any of his contemporaries. Frank Zappa’s quote that rock journalism is “people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read” sums up the general gruesomeness of the genre, yet every now and then something magnificently kicks that image into touch. Forever Changes is one of those glorious moments.
** inchoate: “just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary”, so not even applicable. Zappa was right.