"Just because you've seen me on your TV, Doesn't mean I'm any more enlightened than you."
Can you imagine trying to pitch a William Shatner album to a record label in 2003? For decades he had been sniggered at for his various attempts at ‘singing’, with his much derided rendition of “Mr Tambourine Man” being a subject of much criticism down the years, though the reaction to that was nothing compared to the widespread hysterical ridicule he had received for his version of “Rocket Man”. It would take a brave soul to suggest that Shatner re-enter the recording studio, but what if you engineered a situation that played to Shatner’s strengths? Why not allow Shatner to have a hearty self-deprecating laugh along with the listener? This was the unenviable task that Ben Folds set himself when he set out as William Shatner’s musical collaborator and producer for Has Been, and it resulted in one of the most remarkable albums ever released.
The main trouble with Has Been is not with the album itself, but the listener’s preconceptions about the album. Because of Shatner’s reputation for musical shortcomings, people wanted Has Been to be little more than an ill-conceived parody album which would see Shatner humiliated. As it turns out Has Been is by turns hilarious, heart breaking, dripping with emotion, and above all else, honest. It’s a diverse album which covers a wide range of styles, is musically accomplished and makes the most of Shatner’s ability to deliver dialogue, rather than attempt to get him to actually sing. Shatner had a hand in penning the lyrics for all but two of the songs, with Folds as a sort of musical director, providing well composed pieces of pop music for Shatner to deliver the lyrics over. With the styles ranging from punky thrash, to delicate piano ballads, Morricone’esque western, haunting ambient (courtesy of Lemon Jelly), it’s an album that displays no little stylistic range and allows Folds to subtly demonstrate just how diverse he can be, and with guest performers like Joe Jackson, Adrian Belew, Aimee Mann and Henry Rollins, the whole thing takes the form of a full on musical art statement than a mere album.
It starts with the sound of someone frenetically jabbing at a synthesiser, before Shatner intones some of the most unmistakable opening lines in popular song. Then it hits you. This is William Shatner tackling Pulp’s “Common People” and it’s absolutely glorious. Re-imagined as a faux pop-punk thrash, complete with choir and Joe Jackson barking backing vocals, Shatner’s spoken word dramatic performance of “Common People” really works. It’s a great way to open the album, as it’s a suitably tongue-in-cheek number that raises a smile with a listener who may have been expecting a hilariously incompetent novelty album.
From there Has Been gleefully wrong-foots any listener expecting an album of humorous cover versions by dropping a gear and giving us “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, a straight-faced downbeat number of regret and yearning that Shatner performs in a desperate whisper. It’s at this point that it dawns on you that Has Been is a project that everyone involved took seriously, and so maybe you should too. From here it’s easier to appreciate the album on a number of different levels and as you listen to it, it becomes increasingly obvious that this was a deeply personal album for Shatner to make, as he deals with delicate subjects like trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter (the heartbreakingly frank “That’s Me Trying”), the tragic death of his third wife (the chilling “What Have You Done”) and dealing with over-enthusiastic science fiction fans (“Real” – a country rock number specifically written for Shatner by Brad Paisley).
Despite Has Been’s more serious moments, there’s still plenty of space for levity, as “You’ll Have Time” finds Shatner channelling his thoughts on mortality while fronting a gospel choir, “Ideal Woman” rhythmically tackles the compromises made in adult relationships, and “I Can’t Get Behind That” has Shatner duet with Henry Rollins as they voice off about their gripes and annoyances with modern life to the sound of a chaotic drums and Adrian Belew’s arty guitar work. The humour is well pitched rather than clumsy, with Shatner’s delivery being well judged, given that it would have been easy to over-egg the material in question. Of particular delight is the Morricone-styled title track, in which Shatner takes aim at risk-averse armchair critics. Yes, it raises a chuckle, but it makes a valid point too.
Has Been is the release which justifies Shatner attempting a music career. While the better known The Transformed Man is little more than a novelty curio and subsequent albums have fallen short of capturing the same magic, Has Been is an out and out artistic success, due in no small part to the hands-on involvement of Ben Folds and Shatner’s willingness to both bare his soul and laugh along with the listener. Believe it or not, it’s a genuinely entertaining album which stands up on its own merit and no matter who you are, you should listen to it all the way through at least once in your life.