Editor’s Note: Click here to read the previous installment of this feature.
60. William Shatner, “Common People” (Has Been, 2004)
It’s impossible to overstate how important Elliott Smith was to me from, say, ages 16-20. I was an awkward and unsociable post-adolescent, unable to sort out the teen angst from the real problems. I realized my faux-depression was immature and self-indulgent; that’s part of the reason I liked Smith so much, because he conveyed the same tension. Here was a guy writing beautifully-organized, impeccably arranged pop songs, only to fuck them all up with lyrical self-pity despite being old enough to know better. This isn’t necessarily how I feel about his work now (he had legitimate trauma to process)—but yes, there was a deliberately bratty depression thrown in there for good measure, which I dug. (Cf. “Looking Over My Shoulder”: “All I want to do is write another sonic fuck you.”) And then he killed himself and I went into mourning for two weeks, more or less. I went to a magnet high school that (Austin being Austin) might as well have been Indie Rock High, all bright middle-class white kids with collegiate music taste; his suicide was announced on Pitchfork at 8am, and by noon people who were normally friendly but distant were asking me if I was OK. I wasn’t; I was being a stupid 17-year-old, sure, but Smith’s work meant more to me than, say, most members of my immediate family.
Fast forward one year later, when the posthumous From A Basement On a Hill was getting released; I was now at NYU, but still kind of thinking like a high-schooler. I called an acquaintance and—for the first and almost certainly last time in my life—marched off to the Virgin Megastore to snap up a copy at the midnight sale. I got anticipatorily anxious in case it didn’t live up to his back catalogue, since this was all the new material left as far as I knew. As it turned out, the album was a mess—by far his worst, put together according to his not-very-clear wishes (“Ostriches and Chriping,” a negligible ambient wash, probably isn’t even his song). That same week, William Shatner put out his album, and it was better; Pitchfork’s back-to-back reviews, initially sacrilegious-seeming, were accurate. And this became strangely heartening.
There’s about seven really good tracks on Has Been, which is as much as anyone can ask for on an album that should’ve just been a queasy novelty; as a bonus, it’s the best thing Ben Folds has ever done with his mostly wasted talent. “Common People” is probably Pulp’s greatest achievement, as epic as “Baby O’Riley” but way less simplistic lyrically (class warfare in the post-Thatcher age, etc.), harnessing appropriately cheap keyboards to an unstoppably anthemic chorus. Shatner had apparently never heard it before Folds brought it to him. He might have actually taken the time to study and understand what he’s saying, or he might be bluffing and applying his signature weird reading patterns indiscriminately, but it doesn’t matter; his reading of the song is no less histrionic than Jarvis Cocker’s. Instrumentally, it’s not bad at all: Folds scrubs it down to clean, sharp keyboards and drums. What really sells it is Joe Jackson belting out the chorus in a proper way Shatner’s incapable of. The net result is a New Wave icon, ’90s semi-alternative brat and 60-something relic uniting to affirm that this one song is, indeed, a masterpiece. The song itself is aces; the cover proves how easy it is to love it even if you’re not a lower-class Brit seething with class resentment.