Review Summary: Peak With A P
In 2008 the greatest sportswriter of all time Bill Simmons released his Book of Basketball, a 734 page epic that dissected every player and every team from every era of professional basketball. I enjoyed reading Simmons witty takes on Wilt Chamberlain, the '96 Bulls, Rick Barry's racism, where the phrase "we better get out of dodge!" came from, and why LeBron James might end up being the greatest professional basketball player of all-time.
But what I enjoyed the most was Simmons actually having an original take on why Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all-time. Most writers would have just said that Jordan was the best player because of how many points he had, how many championships he won, how many MVP's he won, and how he only drafted Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison one time. But Simmons said that Jordan was the greatest player of all-time because his career peaked four times when most players only have one peak: he said that Jordan's first peak (MJ 1.0) was in the 1989-1990 season when he became one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game, he said that Jordan's second peak (MJ 3.0) was in the spring of the 1993 season when he learned how to be a team player instead of just a scorer, he said Jordan's third peak (MJ 3.0) came in the Winter of the 1996 season when he matched his extreme talent with his "extrememe resourcefulness," and he said Jordan's fourth peak (MJ 4.0) came in his last season with the Bulls ('97-'98) when he matched his skill and resourcefulness with a "surreal ability to command in optimum moments." Simmons said that MJ was the greatest player of all-time because he was the only player competitive and talented enough to peak four times over one single career.
This got me thinking about who would be the greatest artists of all-time if we judged musicians by how many "career peaks" they had. Would the Beatles have more peaks then The Rolling Stones? Would Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison still be regarded as "icons" even though it can be argued that they only peaked one time in their career? Who would be the artist or the band that the music "experts" would argue peaked the most times? Does peaking have more to do with longevity or the ability to change sounds? When I tried to answer all of these questions in my head at once I found that I just wasn't knowledgeable to have all of the answers. Really the only thing I could answer was how many times I thought that my favorite artists had peaked and then do more research to find the answers to the other "big questions."
The first artist I thought about was Bright Eyes. I thought about Bright Eyes because I knew how many "bases" Oberst had covered throughout his career: he started his career as a punk folk singer who was more of a storyteller than an actual musician (1998-2001,) he then progressed to a brilliant lyricist who could right songs about anything and an adequate musician (2002-2005,) then he transformed into a strictly country musician who began to value song structure and musicianship over storytelling and lyrics (2006-2009,) and finally a musician who valued concepts and song structures over lyrical statements and themes (2009-present.) I also knew that the second era (2002-2005) presented us with a peak with the brilliant albums Lifted and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, I knew that the third era (2006-2009) presented us with a peak in Oberst brilliant 2007 country and folk album Cassadaga, and I knew that the fourth era presented us with a peak in Oberst 2011 "structured sci-fi emo" album The People's Key. I kept struggling to find the peak of the first peak of Oberst's career though: A Collection of Songs Written 1995-1997 was to immature and under produced, Letting off The Happiness had a few moments but overall was far to inconsistent to ever be considered a "peak," and Fevers and Mirrors dragged on a little to much to be considered a peak. After listening to what I thought was everything Bright Eyes I decided that Oberst's career only peaked three times and that I could not possibly find a peak in the "first era" of his career.
I thought this until I started listening to 2001's Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page. This EP features the best storytelling and lyrics of Oberst's career up to this point, it features the most diverse musicianship of his career up to this point, and finally shows us some signs that Oberst can put out "consistently good" material. The first reason that this is the first peak of Oberst's career is how good the storytelling and the lyrics on the album are. "Going For The Gold" is a five minute epic about how Oberst has to stop being such a "selfish asshole" and has to "become someone else" to become a better person, "Oh, You Are The Roots That Sleep Beneath Your Feet" is a three minute "punk folk" song about a long distance relationship that keeps Oberest "alive," "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again" is Oberst writing about how he has to "be happy' and how everyone around him "won't ever be lonely/sad again," "No Lies, Just Love" is one of the most personal Bright Eyes songs ever and is about Oberst's trying to kill himself when he was seventeen and his new outlook on life afterwards, "Kathy With A K's Song" is a five minute epic about how Oberst has actually begun to believe that love is something beyond "something that is just in poetry and movies," "Mirrors And Fevers" is a haunting conclusion to the album where Oberst talks about his dreams and how he won't "be frightened of turning the page" and going on to the next chapter of his life and the next chapter of his career.
Not only does the Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page EP have some of the best storytelling of Oberst's young career it also has some of his best lyrics. "Going For The Gold" is a beautiful combination lyrically of the aggression of "The Calendar Hung Itself" and the reflectiveness of "A Song To Pass The Time," "Oh, You Are The Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet" is a lyrical combination of the desperateness of "Contrast And Compare" and the strange joyfulness of "An Attempt To Tip The Scales," "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again" is a more blunt version of "Something Vague" and "A Perfect Sonnet," "No Lies, Just Love" sounds like everything Conor Oberst has wanted us to hear his entire career up to this point, "Kathy With A K's Song" is a lyrically better version of "The Center of The World," and "Fevers and Mirrors" is the most effective lyrical intro Oberst has ever created and he uses it as an effective outro on this EP. Ever song also has a great lyrical moment: the breakdown to the "Going For The Gold," the last two minutes of "Oh, You Are The Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet," the first two verses of "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again," just about every line in the epic "No Lies, Just Love," the first few verses in "Kathy With A K's Song," and the last lines of "Mirrors and Fevers." The combination of great storytelling and even better lyrics is one of the reasons that Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page can be considered the first peak of Bright Eyes career.
Another reason Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page can be considered the first peak of Bright Eyes career is that this EP is the first release of Bright Eyes career where we can say that the musicianship is at least "solid" and isn't as stale and predictable. "Going For The Gold" is one of the first Bright Eyes songs that successfully combines "punky" and country sounds without sounding forced or messy, "Oh, You Are The Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet" is one of the first time Oberst has felt comfortable singing a soft song and the song also has a great breakdown that sounds completely different from the rest of the song, "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again" is one of the first times Oberst has been able to match a reoccurring theme with different sounds (the whole song is just composed of different verses yet Oberst changes the sound for just about every verse,) "No Lies, Just Love" has a different sound for every verse, chorus, and breakdown and is one of Oberst's best piano driven songs, "Kathy With A K's Song" is broken up into two two minute and thirty segments (one is soft and one is faster,) and "Fevers and Mirrors" can also be broken down into two parts and is an effective outro for the EP. The musicianship on this album is a clear step above anything else Oberst put out in the "first era" of his career.
Finally, it is important to point out that the quality of songs and the consistency of these songs is higher on Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page then it is on any other Bright Eyes release up to this point. "Kathy With A K's Song" and "No Lies, Just Love" are two of the best songs of Oberst's career, "Going For The Gold" is almost up to par with "Waste of Paint" and "Let's Not *** Ourselves," "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again" is a better version of "Trees Get Wheeled Away," "Oh, You Are The Roots That Sleep Beneath My Feet" is one of Bright Eyes most underrated songs and one of his five best love songs, "I Won't Ever Be Happy Again" is a condensed and improved version of "A Song To Pass The Time," and "Mirrors and Fevers" is the best "weird" intro/outro that Oberst has done besides "At The Bottom of Everything." DBFOTTP gives us two classic songs, one of Oberst's five best love songs, a song that is an improved version of one of his best songs up to this point, and one of the best "weird" intro/outros of his career. Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page is the first peak of Oberst's career because it is the first time he showed us that he could "consistently" make great songs.
It is tough to say at this point whether counting the number of peaks is a fair way of judging an artist. We all know that artists are often judged by number of albums sold and number of times they get played on the radio. But it is at least interesting and fascinating to see how many times one of your favorite artists peaked and is even more interesting when you discover an unexpected peak. Oberst peaked four times in his career (Don't Be Frightened of Turning The Page, Lifted and Wide Awake, Cassadaga, The People's Key) but the most interesting and surprising of these peaks had to come with DBFOTTP. The EP was the first time Oberst was able to combine great lyrics with above average musicianship, breathtaking storytelling with varied instrumentation, and was the first time Oberst was able to put more than four good songs in a row together. Don't Be Frightened of The Page is the first sign that Oberst had the talent and skill to become a musician that might have the ability to peak four times. It is where he went from just a scoring champion to someone who might have the potential to be "his ConorAirness." Michael Jordan and Bill Simmons would be proud.