Today sees the release of the fiftieth anniversary box set devoted to Forever Changes, Love’s third and, to many, best album.
I say “to many” because while I think Forever Changes is a magnificent album, it’s also one which, like Pet Sounds for the Beach Boys (or to a lesser extent Village Green Preservation Society for the Kinks) has been allowed to overshadow a body of work containing much else that is excellent, discouraging people who dislike it from a wider examination of the band’s work which might lead to them liking other work (I have a friend, for example, who was unimpressed by Forever Changes but absolutely loved Love’s eponymous first album). I tend to get a little contrarian about records like that, and want to insist to people “there are other records!”
That said, Forever Changes is still a classic album, and its place in the canon is, unusually, roughly commensurate with its quality. It’s a dark, depressive, hallucinatory album, and one of the few 1967 albums to acknowledge the dark edge of paranoia that was always there in the hippie dream (the only other one I can think of is We’re Only In It For The Money, a similarly magnificent record).
So it makes absolute sense that it should be commemorated with a fiftieth anniversary box set, going into the album in the same sort of detail those other records have had.
That said, one might argue that this release is a little padded, in order to make it seem more like a luxury item. While Pet Sounds had long, intensive, sessions with multiple vocal overdubs and different instrumental arrangements, and Village Green had dozens of unreleased tracks to fill out a box set, Forever Changes was recorded relatively quickly, and there’s very little from the sessions other than the album’s eleven songs — only the single “Laughing Stock”/”Your Mind and We Belong Together” and the outtake “Wonder People (I Do Wonder)”.
So here we have a six-disc set of which three discs contain exactly the same material — the first CD, the DVD, and the vinyl album all contain the stereo album, as remastered in 2015. (The DVD also contains one video, for “Your Mind and We Belong Together”, but otherwise the content is the same as on those other two discs).
There’s really no need for this — the vinyl is nice for vinyl fetishists, but not for anyone who prefers vinyl for the sound quality as, as is the case with most current vinyl, it’s cut from a digital master rather than the original analogue tapes, and so it will inevitably have the worst aspects of both formats without the benefits of either.
There might be a benefit to having the DVD audio as well as the CD audio (though frankly that’s a bit of a lost opportunity not to do a surround-sound remix for those who like that — though in my own case I don’t have the equipment to reproduce that), but if so it’s a marginal one — essentially what we have here is a four-CD set marketed as a six-disc one.
But still, forty quid is reasonable enough for a new four-CD set, so let’s treat the other discs as nice bonuses for those who want them for whatever reason, and concentrate on the music itself.
Disc one, the original stereo album, should at first seem the least necessary of these discs. Anyone buying a giant box set devoted to Forever Changes is likely to already have a CD copy of the album (I have two — the original CD issue and the 2001 reissue with bonus tracks), and so could be presumed to not need another. In fact, though, this remastering is quite astonishing.
I often wonder, when I’m discussing new remasters of old material, if I’m willing myself to hear differences that aren’t really there, in order to justify repurchasing music I already own. This is especially true since I have neither very good stereo equipment (in fact I usually listen to music on my laptop, though I do own and occasionally use a proper stereo) or particularly sharp hearing — I’m no audiophile and while i have preferences I generally find that I’m as OK with a decent-bitrate MP3 as I am with hi-def DVD audio or half-speed-mastered vinyl or whatever.
In this case, though, there is a very noticeable difference. I’ve listened to Forever Changes… maybe five hundred times in total? That order of magnitude anyway, in the twenty-one years I’ve known the album. And yet when I put the remastered disc on I had to stop it and take it out to check that it wasn’t one of the discs of alternate mixes — the level of additional detail that was audible just on the intro to “Alone Again Or”, that mass of guitar arpeggios, made me certain that this wasn’t the same track I’ve known for my whole adult life.
There are, actually, some minor differences in the mixes here — just things like fades coming a second or so later than they otherwise would, the kind of thing you get when you go back to the original stereo master tapes for a new remastering for CD. But sonically, the whole thing just sounds infinitely better. I’ve noticed lots of the little things you sometimes get when dealing with a much better mastering of something — finger noise, room sound, that sort of thing. On “Alone Again Or”, for example, the guitars are mixed to one side while the rhythm section is mixed to the other. On the intro on the previous CD version, the left channel (the rhythm section one) is dead until a fraction of a second before the rhythm section comes in. On this one, the audio comes in on both channels simultaneously, and so while the bass and drums aren’t playing you can still hear the leakage from the guitars and the room ambience in the left channel. It creates a more spacious sound — the room sounds much *bigger* this way — and I’m not certain that I can’t even hear the snare rattle in sympathy with some of the bass strings. It also changes the whole rhythmic drive of the track during that section — the reverb in the room is so great that you hear a note in the left ear after it’s finished in the right ear, making some of the more emphasised notes sound like they’re actually travelling through your head as they’re being played.
In general, there’s more reverb and more top end, creating what sounds like a much wider stereo spectrum and a more spacious sound, while also creating a more organic sound — the instruments sound like they’re in the same big room, rather than recorded in several different small rooms and artificially placed in the stereo spectrum — and again, this is when listening on very sub-par equipment.
Disc two, the mono mix, is interesting in its own way. This is the mono mix that was originally released on vinyl in 1967 but quickly deleted — and rather oddly, it turns out that it’s a fold-down mix of a stereo master, but *not* a fold-down mix of the stereo master used to create the stereo album. For some reason, they mixed the album into stereo twice, and then further mixed one of those stereo mixes into mono.
As you’d expect from a fold-down mix, there’s quite a bit of tape hiss compared to the stereo version — not enough to make it sound bad or anything, just rather more than on the clearer stereo mix. In general it’s a rather muddier mix than the stereo — there’s less top end, but also the strings and horns are lower in the mix, and the bass and drums up, making it sound much more of a conventional rock album than the stereo version does. The muddier sound gives the tracks an oppressive feel which goes well with the paranoid nature of the lyrics, but which ends up being not as interesting as the combination of those lyrics with the lighter, almost Muzak-y, feel of the stereo mix.
The mono mix is interesting, but it’s not revelatory in the way that some other mono mixes of the period are, and I doubt it’ll ever supplant the stereo mix as my preferred version — but it’s good to have both.
Disc three is an alternate stereo mix of the entire album (plus an alternate stereo mix of “Wonder People (I Do Wonder)”, which was apparently created in 1967 but which even the engineer Bruce Botnick couldn’t remember when presented with it years later. This was apparently released a decade ago as part of a two-CD release of the album, which I was unaware of until now, though I’d heard one or two tracks from it as bonus tracks on other releases (most notably the version of “You Set The Scene” which includes Arthur Lee rapping at the end).
These mixes tend to be longer than the finished versions, with longer fades (and often with count-ins), and were it not for the fact that things are relatively carefully placed in the stereo spectrum I’d have guessed that they were just basic faders-up mixes — everything’s given roughly equal prominence in the mix (so things like Don Randi’s piano, which on the finished mix of most of the songs he plays on is just mild colouration in the bass end, here have equal weight with the string overdubs), there are several parts that were mixed out altogether or mixed far down in the finished mix (notably several backing vocal parts and bits of double-tracking by Arthur Lee, but also an acoustic guitar coda on “The Red Telephone”), while at other times instrumental lines that are meant to be prominent are buried (for example the guitar countermelody on “Maybe the People Would be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale”) and there’s a general sense that this was something done as a quick dump to stereo, possibly in order for the band and engineers to have something to listen to while figuring out exactly what they wanted to do with the final mixes.
And finally, disc four is a selection of the other odds and ends one gets in a project such as this — the single mix of “Alone Again Or”, the “Laughing Stock”/”Your Mind and We Belong Together” single, the outtake “Wonder People (I Do Wonder)”, a couple of instrumental backing tracks, and some bits of session chatter. Much of this is familiar from the 2001 CD, although it’s all had the same kind of sonic upgrade that the original album has, and there’s more of it — notably stuff like a joking, giggly, clearly-stoned, run through of Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs’ “Wolly Bully”. Some of it’s quite nice, like the attempt at an electric backing track for “Andmoreagain”, which sounds very early-Beatles, but none of it’s jaw-dropping.
In the end, this isn’t a collection I would recommend to the casual listener. It doesn’t do what the Pet Sounds Sessions box does and allow you a deep delve into the recording of the album, and nor does it do what the Village Green Preservation Society box does and give you a load of otherwise-unreleased great tracks to listen to. Rather, it presents the same album multiple times, in subtly varying ways. For the vast majority of listeners, those subtle variations simply won’t be worth getting this for, when you can get every actual performance that’s on here (modulo a few incomplete attempts) on the widely-available single-CD version of the album.
Rather, this is closer to the Project/Object CDs that the Zappa Family Trust has been putting out — recordings whose whole purpose is to highlight those tiny differences for people like me, who get great pleasure out of such things. If you’re the kind of person who *honestly wants* to hear what the reverb in the left channel sounds like at the start of “Alone Again Or” before the faders come up on the normal CD version — and I am that kind of person — then this box set is for you. For everyone else, you’ll probably be perfectly happy with the CD you already have (and if you haven’t got a CD of Forever Changes at all… then you’re probably not thinking of spending forty quid on a box set of it).
This whole review may have seemed like damning with faint praise, but it really, really, isn’t. Forever Changes is a great album, and this is a great box set. It’s just a great box set aimed at a very specific niche, and I don’t want to give any other impression. But for myself, I’m very happy in that niche.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?