10 · Has Been

If I were to list my top ten albums of the year there would be only three or four artists on the list. So to make things more interesting, I’m going to clump similar works together (for books and movies, too) and choose the best or most representative in each group—which is how William Shatner’s extraordinary second album squeaks into the list ahead of almost everything by, say, the Divine Comedy.

Of course, Shatner’s first album was extraordinary too. I’ve never heard anything quite the same... and I’m not sure I want to. Then there was his legendary performance of “Rocket Man”, perhaps the most jaw-droppingly awful awards-ceremony act ever (here’s a streaming video). So I approached this one with deep scepticism, and only approached it at all because Ben Folds produced it. The Fold trumps the Shat.

And it has to be said, the Fold has done wonders. Shatner’s delivery is as bizarre as ever, but his friend has coaxed some engaging lyrics out of the man, and set them to good Foldsian tunes. The cover of “Common People” that kicks off the album is just a gimmick compared to what follows: such hilarious numbers as “You’ll Have Time” and “Has Been”, and such unexpectedly moving ones as “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, “That’s Me Trying” and (again) “Has Been”.

I haven’t heard an album as cohesive and perfectly sequenced as this in quite a while. This is an album with a plot, and real character. The emotional heart is the devastating “What Have You Done”, a monologue about his wife’s drowning, set to the most subtle cello: James T. Kirk meets Arvo Pärt. The segue into the Lemon Jelly-backed “Together” is probably my favourite moment on any album this year.

But the best track has to be “I Can’t Get Behind That”, a fantastic shouting match with Henry Rollins. Back in the dark ages a scratchy wav of Shatner’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” confirmed to me the real power the net: bringing us weird and wonderful stuff that couldn’t flourish elsewhere. This new track, too, has internet overtones: it’s pure essence of rant—a thousand blog posts distilled into three minutes.

If you can’t stand Shatner in any form, Has Been probably won’t convert you. But if you’re one of those who laughs with his self-deprecating moments, or you’re a Folds fan, give it a try. (As for the similar works: this finally prompted me to get a copy of Fear of Pop Volume One, Folds’s 1998 solo CD, to see what I was missing besides the Shatner vocals of “In Love”. A good album, as it turns out, with surprisingly little filler, and “I Paid My Money” and “Rubber Sled” as particular highlights.)