Johnny America


William Shat­ner’s Has Been


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.

Filed under Music on October 7th, 2004

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