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Irony is like the Dark Side in Star Wars, not in that it’s evil but in that it is nearly impossible to come back from. You will never find a pink plastic lawn flamingo for sale next to the Eames chairs at Design Within Reach. Once you’re ham and cheese, you’re never fillet mignon.
Enter the strange case of Bill Shatner, Le Grand Fromage of television, film, and— thank you, “Mr. Tambourine Man” — records. Indeed, by virtue of Rhino Record’s seminal Golden Throats albums, Shatner’s dramatic spoken-word renditions of the rock ’n’ roll songbook were major touchstones of Gen-X irony, and those people practically invented eye rolling. For “The Shat” to walk his musical career back from that, irony’s Himalayas, is an unimaginable feat, one perhaps never before attempted, much less completed, in the history of pop culture.
Yet not only does Shatner pull this impossible trick off in his 2004 record Has Been, he gets there in about 85 seconds.
It’s at the 1:25 mark of the opening track, a remarkable re-imagining of Pulp’s Brit hit “Common People” by the record’s producer and co-creator Ben Folds, that you start to hear what is going on here, or, more precisely, you begin to feel it. That’s when Folds brings in his idol and musical progenitor Joe Jackson to interrupt Shatner’s soliloquy by ripping angrily through the chorus. Suddenly Jarvis Crocker’s witty indictment of a college girl’s slumming is engulfed in the flames of both class rage and the yearning desire to connect. Sorry fans of The Transformed Man, Shatner’s ’68 classic of psychedelic chintz, there’s nothing ironic happening here at all.
As Folds’ propulsive and tight arrangement builds, with Shatner and Jackson trading off on the vocals, the stakes only intensify. “Common People” is the only cover on Has Been, and it’s the Pulp Fiction adrenaline shot to the heart from which it never lets up. There is no doubt Shatner means every word he says here, but it’s expert character acting. (Shatner hasn’t been a common person since facing off with the alien on a plane wing on that Twilight Zone episode in 1962).
The rest of the record is autobiography. Shatner plays himself on Has Been, and the results are revealing, heartbreaking, and in the hands of Folds’ arrangements, never less than jazzy and rocking. While Shatner can bluster on screen, the record exhibits regret and a vulnerability we are used to seeing him shield behind his public persona. When Shatner asked his producer how he should approach the project, Folds told him, “Tell the truth.” Turns out, the truth hurts, but in the most satisfying ways.
The ghostly bossa nova of “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” for example, manages to tie together the dissatisfaction of both youth and middle age into one perfectly steeped bitter tea. While “That’s Me Trying,” a tale of fumbled reconnection with an adult daughter, sounds like it could have been taken from Shatner’s life, it was written by novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby, and comes off as a perfectly crafted short story. Aimee Mann joins Folds for the chorus here: this album’s many pleasures includes it’s precisely cast guest stars.
Has Been reaches it’s emotional crescendo halfway through with “What Have You Done,” a reported monologue that details Shatner’s discovery of his second wife Nerine’s drowned body in their Studio City pool in 1999. “Together,” with its lovely and disconcerting mix of acoustic guitar and programmed beats from London electronic music duo Lemon Jelly, is Shatner’s attempt to move forward from that tragedy (it was co-written by his third wife Elizabeth) and is the album’s most optimistic tune, and the only one that traffics in the psychedelia of The Transformed Man.
The second half of the album is lighter than the first, concluding on a note of abject earnestness and literalness with “Real,” a song written specifically for Shatner by Brad Paisley, who also sings on the chorus.
While it’s a clever way to wrap up the record, the focus of Has Been isn’t so much Shatner’s realness as it is mortality, his own and other people’s. Indeed, while the title of the album sounds like a joke on celebrity, it’s really a riff on death. Notice how many of these tunes stop abruptly?
Perhaps this is Shatner’s way to reclaim his legacy when his own time comes. Yes, James T. Kirk will be brought up in the first paragraph of his obit, then will come mention of his Priceline money and his various tiffs with costars. But at some point Has Been, this remarkably open-hearted and fully-realized record, will have to be reckoned with, and at that point we will all be forced to stop for a moment and recognize the man in full.