“The studio we worked in is where Elvis waved his hips,” reads William Shatner’s introductory liner notes to his new (mostly) spoken word pop-cum-poetry-slam effort with the supremely defensive title Has Been. “These musical moments are, essentially, from my heart.” Has there ever been a more eminently slappable man in American pop-cultural history than Shatner? Possibly, but the sheer chutzpah behind forging a sing-songy “reading” of “Common People,” Pulp’s incendiary WMD in the Britpop class battle, certainly isn’t anything resembling a safe career choice for our pop culture’s own little Lina Lamont (he’s aware of his own limitations, and has managed to cannily stitch them into his public façade, but he’s essentially still untalented). And the anti-rockist in me adores him for his heresy. “Common People,” the Pulp version, is suffused with an understandable level of anger, but as a manifesto, it’s a tad too privileged to really stick. “Common People,” the Shatner version, is a bemused old man speaking about angry young men’s most astringent thoughts, and letting someone else (Joe Jackson) sing the chorus. That is until the last go-around, where he seemingly can’t bear it and perfunctorily speaks the chorus, punctuating. each. syllable! Destined to go down as a great novelty hit, Shatner’s hubris in covering the song, shearing if of all its UK context, and daring to throw fuel onto the fire of his already raging ego (he couldn’t feign “common” if he tried), is actually far more transgressive than you might think. The rest of the album (mostly written and produced by Ben Folds) is a lot more subdued and plaintive. And, as Shatner appears to be aiming for honest emotional epiphanies (and falling far short) in pleading, earnest songs like “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” and “That’s Me Trying,” his detached deliveries, flailing against a barrage of “actor’s considerations,” end up betraying him. The album’s closest antecedent is probably the Word Jazz installments of one Ken Nordine, whose arch, beatnik ruminations on life’s isolated moments of surreality are exactly what Shatner would appear to be attempting to replicate here. Only Nordine’s detachment was the essence of his recordings, not his desire to connect with humanity. At his best, Nordine came off as an elusive ideal: the most serenely eloquent insane person you’ve ever wanted to spend two hours with sharing a bus stop bench. At his worst (namely the Henry Rollins duet-rant “I Can’t Get Behind That”), Shatner sounds like someone you’d be far more likely to end up caught next to: an embittered man waxing cantankerous because a few too many enablers convinced him that he’s cute when he’s angry.
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