Review Summary: A truly unique musical experience you should hear and then believe.
William Shatner and Ben Folds
are an extremely unlikely combination. One is best known to the world as either Captain James T. Kirk, Captain of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, or as notorious lawyer Denny Crane on Boston Legal. The man is also a television star, an author, a producer, a director and even work as a celebrity pitchman.
Ben Folds, on the other hand has never acted in his life. He is a piano whiz, rising to fame in the nineties with his band Ben Folds Five and notable hits like “Underground”, “Army”, “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” and, of course, “Brick”. Still to this day the man retains a huge popularity worldwide, with a successful solo career and hits with “Rockin’ The Suburbs” and “Landed”.
So, what happens when the two unexpectedly collaborate and create an album? The first word that comes to mind, for me, is magic. The production is great, the musicians are tight, creating great atmospherics when needed, and Shatner’s lyrics are that of a truly understated poet.
Shatner’s only previous record, 77’s “The Transformed Man”, was widely mocked and featured many covers (everything from Shakespeare readings to what some regards as the worst Beatles cover of all time in Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds). This time around, however, there is only one cover song, and it’s on first, maybe just to get it out of the way. Fortunately, it’s a cracker. The song is Common People, a cover of a famous Pulp
tune from back in the 90s. Shatner’s interpretation, taking on the role of the confused college student with the naïve rich girl, is quite charming and funny. Joe Jackson on guitar and chorus vocals are a great addition to the song too. Like a few of the songs on the record, it involves a top-sounding choir and also sounds like it was a lot of fun to record.
This, however, is one of the few really fun tracks on the record, as with lyrics written by Shatner comes a lot of emotional baggage. Life, it seems, is not all great as a celebrity- “Yes, there are nods in my direction”, he says on “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”; “But still, I’m scared again”. He goes on in the song to describe his dissatisfaction with what he has done with his life- not financially, but emotionally. “I would be the best, I would make my folks proud, I would be happy. It hasn’t happened yet”.
Shatner states in the liner notes of the record that the lyrics are really from his heart, and you feel that deeply on songs like this.
Along with this personal dissatisfaction, Shatner also appears to have family problems too- “That’s Me Trying” sees Shatner writing to his estranged daughter in somewhat of a dramedy style. You can feel the sincerity of Shatner’s words when he says “I haven’t been the best of dads” and moves to rekindle his relationship, but you can’t help but s****** when he tries to talk away his errors as a father: “I’d like to explain…but I can’t…so…”.
Has Been also features not one but three truly outstanding songs. I will not include my personal anecdotes, but I shall discuss these songs in slightly bigger detail here.
The first of these is also the shortest- a poem called “What Have You Done”, written by Shatner about his late wife. He describes coming home and seeing her dead after drowning, diving in the pool and taking her to the surface. It seems that he has blamed himself for what has happened- “My love was supposed to protect her- it didn’t”. Once the impact of the message sets in, it will truly move you, possibly even make you shudder as it did to me. The soft buzzes and faint double bass in the background create the best atmosphere on the whole record. To me, it is possibly the most heart-wrenching song since Korn
’s “Daddy” back in the 90s.
Secondly, the longest song on the album in the near-six-minute “Together”. All production and instruments on the song are by British electronica duo Lemon Jelly
, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Even with the best music on the album, don’t think the lyrics are secondary. Shatner describes a relationship between two lovers, albeit with minimal lyrics. However the message comes across well: "So much to learn…together" he nearly whispers. The minimalism of the vocals works to perfection, and brings LJ’s instrumentation and production right to the forefront of the song. I have always enjoyed Lemon Jelly’s original style and approach, and this track is no exception. Absolutely brilliant.
Finally, the absolutely hilarious spoken-word duet of “I Can’t Get Behind That”. Featuring the always-pissed-off-about-something Henry Rollins, the two wage war on everything that they, well, can’t get behind.
SHATNER: I can't get behind the Gods, who are more vengeful, angry, and dangerous
if you don't believe in them!
ROLLINS: Why can't all these Gods just get along? I mean, they're omnipotent and
omnipresent! What's the problem?
And things get even crazier from there.
The two seem to be MADE to work together, the result a twistedly funny take on modern life.
SHATNER: My phone rings!
ROLLINS: “Make millions in minutes!”
SHATNER: It's a computer!
ROLLINS: “Lose inches in hours!”
SHATNER: LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE!
ROLLINS: “EAT MORE! SPEND LESS!”
The way that they play off each other works to great effect.
Listening to these songs, you can see that Shatner most probably had a LOT to get off his chest when he recorded this, as there are a lot of issues that he covers. He lashes out at people who have dismissed him on the title track (worth it for the hilarious line “They laugh at other’s failure/But they have not done ***” alone), reminisces over an old love on the beautiful, swaying ballad “Familiar Love” and does his best to explain to Trekkies worldwide that he’s really not a superhero on “Real” (though it’s a little hard to take this one seriously, especially with the huge cheese factor of the country-pop backing music and the drawling chorus performed by Brad Paisley
– “Sawreh tuh dissuhpawnt yew, buht ahm reeeel” (sorry to disappoint you, but I’m real; for those of you playing at home). The reason why this album is so fantastic is that you’re not bored with this record at any point- clocking in at just forty minutes, it’s hardly stretching it out. And when Bill says something on this album, he really really means it.
This is a truly worthy addition to any music collection. Smart, funny, charming, heartwarming, endearing, inspiring- all through the art of spoken word.
A truly magic album; quite possibly the highlight of Shatner's long career.
Oh, and just before I go...