This is the only thing that I am sure of
And that’s all that lives is gonna die
And there’ll always be some people here to wonder why
And for every happy hello there will be good-bye
As the business of life took most of my time and attention, I didn’t hear it for many years. Sometime in the late ‘80s I listened to it for the first time since perhaps 1970 or so. Yep, it was still good. And sometime after that I became aware that it was considered a classic, turning up frequently on lists of the all-time-best pop albums.
When Arthur Lee, the band’s driving force, died of leukemia in 2006, and eulogies and retrospectives popped up everywhere, I got out my old vinyl copy and listened to it again, just to see if it was really that good (having, once again, gone many years without hearing it). Yes, it is that good. I can’t think of anything else comparable in style from the last two years of the ‘60s that’s as good, and not much that even comes close. Nothing the Beatles did after their last few brilliant singles, the ones collected on Magical Mystery Tour, can touch it as a complete album. The Byrds? No. Simon and Garfunkel? No. Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog is in the same class but not as consistent and unified. This is one of the few pop albums that really seems to have a coherent and organic flow from beginning to end.
What is the style? I hesitate to describe it, for fear of making it sound bland and soft, but: richly melodic, with a sort of folk-rock base to which are added brilliant string and brass arrangements. Well, let’s not say “added,” because the arrangements are intrinsic and essential, and arranger David Angel ought, as with other great arranger/producers of the time like George Martin and Joe Boyd, to be credited as a group member.
The lyrics are a major strength. You can’t say they’re brilliant, exactly, and they’re often obscure, but somehow they capture the odd mixture of hope and alienation that characterized the late ‘60s.
Maybe it’s not so much that the album speaks to and of its time as to and of youth. I wondered, as I listened to it the other day, if it’s an artifact of its time, and if my liking for it is a result of having been young in that time. But I’ve asked around, and have found among its strongest admirers people who were born long after it was released. That constitutes a classic, at least in the shortened time frame of popular music.
At AMG you can read the sad story of the band, of Arthur Lee, and the not-quite-so-sad story of second guitarist-songwriter Bryan MacLean, who I suspect had a larger-than-recognized role in Forever Changes.