Album Reviews: Has Been by William ShatnerLong before William Hung ever tormented us with his tuneless, rhythmless crooning, another William released an album of off-key, off-kilter cover tunes and meandering, self-indulgent poetry that has since become a cult classic. Yes, if you haven’t heard William Shatner’s dramatic readings of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” off his 1968 album The Transformed Man, you haven’t experienced true kitsch in its all its guffaw-inducing glory.
Now, a mere 36 years later, Shatner is back from the Star Trek convention wilderness to grace us with a followup, the brilliantly titled Has Been. At first blush, the timing of Shatner’s return to the recording studio seems calculated to cash in on America’s sudden fondness for entertainers who can’t sing. But this time around, the former Captain Kirk has a secret weapon - a musical Spock up his sleeve, if you will. Has Been was produced, and most of its tracks co-written, by Ben Folds, and with the help of his pure pop brilliance, Shatner has improbably recorded a great album.
What makes Has Been so remarkable is the number of different levels it works on. Songs that seem hysterically funny on the first listen reveal depths of bittersweet pathos after you’ve hit the repeat button a few times. “At my age I need serenity,” Shatner intones on “It Hasn't Happened Yet,” “I need peace. It hasn't happened yet.” His portentous delivery of these lines elicits laughter at first, but the honest sense of longing behind them eventually wins you over. It's impossible not to be moved a guy this unshakably sincere.
It doesn’t hurt that Has Been is strewn with more talented collaborators than your average big-name hip-hop album. Joe Jackson enlivens an astonishing cover of Pulp’s “Common People”; British electronica gurus Lemon Jelly produced the gorgeous accompaniment to “Together”; Henry Rollins stops by to deliver a few rants on “I Can’t Get Behind That.” Folds even enlisted pop novelist Nick Hornby, of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame, to write a sweetly hilarious monologue for “That’s Me Trying.” Maybe best of all, country star Brad Paisley lends his plaintive voice and guitar to “Real,” a song he wrote for Shatner that perfectly showcases the actor’s gift for rendering the absurd (in this case, Star Trek fans writing to him asking him to solve the world’s problems) with absolute, unflappable dignity.
But it’s really not all about the guest stars, or even about Folds and the catchy, note-perfect tunes he cooks up to accompany Shatner’s hammy, spoken-word delivery. The star of Has Been really is Shatner himself, fearlessly offering himself up for ridicule with a sly, self-deprecating smile. “I can’t get behind so-called singers that can’t carry a tune, get paid for talking,” he fulminates on “I Can’t Get Behind That.” Then he mutters: “Well, maybe I can get behind that.” When it’s done this well, so can we. - Andy Hermann
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