Bryan McLean and Arthur Lee (Love)

September 15, 2015

I have no idea – or even much interest in – the relationship these two had. All I know is that they had over-lapping skills sets and produced some of the most original songs ever. I had their first album, titled simply Love, and several songs stood out as very un-formulaic, most especially Softly to me by Bryan Maclean, unbelievably fresh-sounding, a true beauty. The songs by Lee were also very fine though not quite so original and verging towards the melodramatic, for example, Signed DC, a fine but limited tune about drug addiction, but bold for its time. I missed their second album, Da Capo, and it’s never received good reviews; I had it once but never got into it.

By the time of their third album, the classic Forever Changes, they seemed to have learned a lot from each other. The lyrics had become quite surreal, Lee no longer sung in the mock-rock style of the first album, and an extraordinary melodiousness unlike everything else in popular music of that time, pervaded the album. It was like Bob Dylan with melody. There are tales of the members of the group falling out in the studio, and of arguments with their producer over the production, which apparently was kept secret even from some in the group. Whatever, the result was an absolute masterpiece, arguably the strongest album song-for-song and in terms of originality in all of rock.

The stand-out has to be the song Old Man by Bryan Maclean, as exquisite a melody as there can be. But Lee’s efforts were not inferior, merely different, equally complex and melodic, but darker and more lyrically creative. Lines like “Oh the snot has caked upon my pants – it has turned into crystal” alternate with the chanting “They’re locking them up today, they’re throwing away the key; I wonder who it will be tomorrow, you or me?” There’s the simple honesty of a statement such as “You don’t know how much I love you” alongside the psychedelic ambiguity of “And if you see Andmoreagain, then you will know Andmoreagain…”

They actually sound like they really enjoyed writing playful lyrics, finding internal rhymes, bending the last word of one line into the first of the next, and dreaming up exotic combinations (yes, it’s very trippy). But none of it would have been effective without their melodic mastery. Forever changes demonstrates some of the farther reaches of the marriage of words and music. The angularity of many of the melodic lines is always resolved into perfect counter-balance by other equally eccentric melodic fragments, which support the always-engaging lyrics. Forever changes was a stunning tour-de-force! Then they broke up.

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