In the late ’60s, when celebrities first began exploring the possibilities of multi-media fame extension, actor William Shatner, famous as Star Trek‘s Captain James Tiberius Kirk, tried his hand at expressing himself in the recording studio — with extraordinary results. The Transformed Man reveals a large ego running amok, mixing and matching melodramatic readings from Shakespeare and Cyrano de Bergerac with berserk covers (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “It Was a Very Good Year”). Shatner was obviously trying for some sort of grand artistic statement here, although quite what that might have been has never been adequately explained. The Transformed Man is (probably correctly) remembered as a cultural train wreck of major proportions, but its very fearlessness lends it a certain charm. There’s something to be said for sheer unselfconscious lunacy with the courage of its own convictions. A unique artistic vision is in play here; had it not been recorded by someone of Shatner’s stature, it might not have been quite so easy a target. (Well, okay, it probably would have drawn derisive hoots no matter who recorded it.)
Shatner shelved his musical ambitions for a couple of decades (save for a magnificently unhinged performance of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” on the broadcast of the 1977 Science Fiction Film Awards, which traumatized an entire generation of sci-fi fanboys. But the ’90s’ irony-laden embrace of all things uncool brought a new round of interest in Shatner’s “songcraft.” And while he may be a scenery chewing ham of epic proportions, Shatner, to his credit, has never been afraid to laugh at himself. So when the MTV Movie Awards and Priceline.com trotted him out to “sing” for them, he had a good time tweaking his image and his reputation.
Whatever Ben Folds’ motivations were for approaching Shatner to perform on his Fear of Pop project — was he derisive, in on a joke or sincere in his enthusiasm? — the partnership, which became a friendship, produced unpredictably positive results. Shatner’s performance of “In Love” on Folds’ record is one its highlights.
So when Shatner was asked to make a new album, he got Folds to produce and arrange it. The younger man seems to have grasped that Shatner had actual valid ideas to communicate musically — all he needed was a sympathetic co-worker to shape them and bring them to a final focused form. The resulting album, Has Been, is a work of real wit, warmth and accomplishment. Some might still regard Shatner’s speak-singing over Folds’ retro-lounge arrangements as a novelty, but how is it all that different from what Shatner’s fellow countryman and contemporary, the revered Leonard Cohen, has been doing for 40 years?
Has Been opens with a pounding cover of Pulp’s “Common People,” on which Shatner trades verses with Joe Jackson — their two approaches don’t really mesh, but the song somehow still holds together, no doubt due to the fact that it’s a brilliant song to begin with. The next few tracks are more indicative of the rest of the album, and listening to them doesn’t necessarily banish suspicions that it’s all a giggle. However, any lingering doubts are silenced by “What Have You Done,” Shatner’s reaction to his wife’s death by drowning in their swimming pool. It’s a stark, stunning piece which casts the entire album in a different light — hard as it may be to believe, William Shatner is actually a recording artist with important things to say. The rest of the album reveals him to be a remarkably clever and insightful lyricist, eliciting guffaws on several tracks — most notably “You’ll Have Time,” “Ideal Woman” and the hysterical dueling bitchfest with Henry Rollins, “I Can’t Get Behind That.” The collaboration with LemonJelly, “Together,” makes Shatner seem like a bit of a bystander on his own album as the swirling beats swamp the vocals — but it’s still a gorgeous piece of music. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Has Been is the respect and obvious affection with which all the participants seem to have treated Shatner. Folds, Jackson, Rollins, Aimee Mann, Adrian Belew, country star Kenny Chesney — all of them seem motivated by a real desire to help Shatner present himself in the best possible light. A surprising, unexpected and welcome career redemption.