William Shatner’s Has Been

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Like a star in the heavens he so gallantly explored, the walking pile of mystique that is William Shatner burns bright despite great age. As someone who never watched Star Trek, save one or two episodes of the Next Generation, I lack personal context for the history of Shatner. Lacking bias, I am so supremely able to appreciate the inane beauty of his genius. His most recent musical offering, Has Been, hit shelves on October 5th, and might usher in a new era for Shatner, the likes of which the world has never seen. Determining this album’s commercial viability is a harrowing and complicated process—one that leads the listener through the darkest depths of pop cultures past, present, and future—so consider that a possibility, not a prediction.

Shatner’s first album came out in 1968, before anyone really Got It. He sang covers of popular tunes, reciting their lyrics as poetry. Now the album is a classic, selling hundreds of millions of copies a year (approximately). The recent critical re-visiting of Shatner’s previously panned work, and the subsequent resurgence in public interest, caught the fancy of Mr. Ben Folds (of Ben Folds Five fame), who arranged Shatner’s new album.

Has Been opens with a cover of the Pulp classic “Common People.” I don’t know whose idea it was, but the song is perfectly suited for Shatner’s inimitable vocal style. It sounds a lot like the Pulp version, because Jarvis Cocker talks a lot in his songs too (that is another story). Some guy named Joe Jackson apparently sings the chorus… he does a pretty good job.

The album contains quite a few collaborations. “Together,” featuring Lemon Jelly, is an almost danceable psychedelic swirl of happy spoken-word goodness; Shatner’s lyrics revel in the pseudo-sincerity only he can pull off. “I Can’t Get Behind That” (feat. Henry Rollins) is a rockin’ little post-beat rant (with sweet ass bongos) that shows Shatner can yell with the best of them.

The other tracks on Has Been vary widely, touching on nearly a thousand genres, though most retain some hint of the late sixties / early seventies era in which Shatner was at his prime. Many of the songs contain subtle hints of bossa nova, and there are a few tracks with full-on country influences. The album’s title track is a skewering of his critics set to a track very similar to the theme from Rawhide. It’s really pretty funny, if you like that sort of thing.

Honestly, the album as a whole is quite listenable, which is surprising considering the lack of real singing. Its very existence represents an ironic conundrum. Is the album good because it is good, good because it is bad, bad because it is good, or just plain bad? The album contains a few genuinely touching moments and some incredibly sad ones. Shatner’s unaccompanied poem describing the death of his wife (who drowned in a pool in 1999) is impossibly sad and quite difficult to listen to.

The juxtaposition of tracks such as this with the many hilarious moments this album has to offer make it worth a listen. It is for reasons like this that the album is not simply a pop culture anomaly based purely on ironic appreciation of Shatner’s past, but an album which in many ways stands on its own artistic merit. Whether people will be able to separate the two is different question.

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