Music of 2004: Brian Wilson, Smile and William Shatner, Has Been
Continuing my treatment of notable music releases of 2004 with these two albums. I bought them around the same time, listened to them back to back, and started a review of them together (cannibalized below.) It seemed to make sense at the time, since both of them are pop figures associated with the 60s whose recent work points back to that decade. After sitting on this post for months, I offer it now in place of fresh content.
I don't know exactly why, but even before I heard that Brian Wilson was going to release a completed version of Smile it had been on my mind. Maybe it was the release of the "naked" version of Let It Be, which I never bought or even heard since I don't really like the original release. For some reason, I started getting curious about what Smile really sounded like, or what it would have sounded like had it been released in 1967. I've avoided the versions available elsewhere, although I imagine I would have eventually listened to the 60s recordings if Wilson had died without allowing Smile to be released in any form. I guess the point of this is that before now I was mostly curious about it as an artifact of the 1960s or of the artistic development of Brian Wilson, rather than as a piece of music.
Like many people, my first reaction to hearing that Smile would be coming out was trepidation, since it's hard to imagine it living up to its reputation or the associations it invariably carries with Pet Sounds and Sgt. Peppers. The album now released as SMiLE (this is the only time I will reproduce this spelling) isn't in the same league with either of those albums, but listening to it is remarkably disarming of those unrealistic and unhelpful comparisons. The bottom line is that it's a really interesting, highly listenable album. There's not a hint of the unfulfilled ambition or sense of failure that I, and perhaps other listeners, feared it would inspire. Despite my earlier reasons for interest, I appreciate Smile mostly because it doesn't come across as a cultural artifact.
The tracks are explicitly divided into three song cycles, each of which has high points and low. The same thing can be said for each individual song, since Wilson has followed through on the pattern of using rather simple melodies to anchor individual songs in a way that initially reminded me of Count Basie's use of "heads." It doesn't really have the same effect, though, since Wilson's melodic touchstones don't contribute structure as much as they do a sense of theme, almost like skeleton keys to the cycles. As a result, there aren't any particular songs that I'm inclined to "skip ahead" to hear, although there are portions of certain songs, like "Roll Plymouth Rock," "Surf's Up," "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," and "Heroes and Villains" that cause me to perk up.
Van Dyke Park's notorious lyrical contributions don't interest me much by themselves, which I suppose is another saving grace. Nothing overly "psychedelic" stands out to make the project seem like a dusted-off nostalgia piece. At the same time, the lyrics don't contribute much to the album as a whole, despite the sense one gets that there's supposed to be some lyrical themes to match the melodic continuity of the song cycles. Actually, I get the feeling listening to Smile that it would make great material for a remix along the lines of Dangermouse's Grey Album.
As 60s pop art pieces go, Pet Sounds holds a different place than William Shatner's first album, The Transformed Man. But while Brian Wilson's new album is very nice, it doesn't seem as essential to me as Has Been, the new release from Shatner. Smile certainly brings Wilson's 60s ambitions to a satisfying conclusion without wallowing in the past too egregiously; Shatner's work is jarringly engaged with the present. Not only does it directly address his own concerns and events in his life, it also presents a powerful challenge to hipster critics and listeners who are too defensively jaded and dulled by irony to be able to deal with something that's simultaneously funny and serious.
I was very excited to hear word of Shatner's return to recording. I was a fan of Star Trek as a kid, before Next Generation, and have always liked Shatner's public personality and even his acting on occasion. He "discovered" himself as a comedic talent primarily in the 80s, appearing in Airplane 2 (by far the best thing in that movie) and his infamous Saturday Night Live appearance in 1986, and then clinched this new direction with his appearances as "The Big Giant Head" on 3rd Rock from the Sun. I picked up The Transformed Man nearly ten years ago on CD. When I tell people of my enthusiasm for Shatner, they usually assume that it's one of those "ironic" enthusiasms for things that suck. Shatner's first album has been described as "campy," which is often taken to mean the same thing, but it's very appropriate given the death of Susan Sontag recently to note that camp doesn't necessarily mean bad. As Sontag put it, "Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the 'off,' of things-being-what-they-are-not." All of this can be found on The Transformed Man.
Arguments about TTM tend to revolve around whether Shatner is "serious" or trying to be "funny," as if this were a dichotomy. Sure, there's a sense in which this is an attempt at heady important pop art. But welding together over-the-top readings of "Cyrano" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" (my favorite piece on the album) makes a serious point about ambition and release, as well as offering a stark contrast between what was once considered accomplished verse and what passes for it now. Part of this work is done by being funny. Peter Sellars had already had a hit earlier in the 60s with his dramatic reading of "A Hard Day's Night," so it can't be said that Shatner had no frame of reference for such an approach. This isn't to say that everything on TTM is a success. I particularly think his take on "It Was a Very Good Year" is flat-out wrong. In contrast, his reading of "How Insensitive(Insensatez)" another interpretation of Sinatra coupled with "Romeo and Juliet," is very well done.
Regardless, Shatner's at a different game in Has Been and it's a game many people apparently weren't ready for. Many critics responded to the album as if it were an attempt at deliberate camp (always a bad idea, as Sontag says.) But reading the album as nothing but a joke makes it impossible to understand most of its content, including an unaccompanied elegy for his wife, who drowned in their pool. Unlike stupid bad taste pop phenomena like William Hung, Shatner doesn't sing badly; he doesn't sing at all. His performances are readings and are meant to be taken as such. He only does one cover, a sharp interpretation of "Common People." I don't really know the original, but the only qualm I have with Shatner's version is Joe Jackson's interruption on the chorus (undoubtedly producer Ben Fold's idea.)
Shatner's warm-up for Has Been was his contribution to Ben Fold's Fear of Pop album from 1998, a sinister piece called "In Love" that almost sounds like another take on the situation depicted in "How Insensitive." Many pieces on Has Been ruminate on fear of failure or its reality, each taking a different position. Several are seemingly autobiographical while others are clearly not. Although the funnier tracks, like "You'll Have Time," "Ideal Woman" and "I Can't Get Behind That" are likely to be the most popular, I find the more sober pieces equally compelling. "It Hasn't Happened Yet" required a few listens before it fell into place. I even like "That's Me Trying," one of the few pieces written by someone else (Nick Hornby, in this case.)
I've always thought that successful art can be distinguished in part by its willingness to risk being mistaken for something that it is not without running away from what it is. Shatner's Has Been is an unqualified success in this fashion. It's an entirely unironic exploration of several important themes, but bravely runs the risk of being interpreted as a novelty product. Such an interpretation doesn't withstand listening to it, though, unless you've already decided that whatever Shatner does must be kitsch.
Shatner's acting career has taken off again with his supporting role on Boston Legal and I have to admit that if it weren't for his and James Spader's efforts selling the same old stuff that David Kelley shows have been recycling for the last decade or so I wouldn't be watching it. Shatner's acting technique, obvious as it is, has only improved with age. I think this is due partly to continued practice, partly to his growing comfort with his comic gifts and partly due to his embrace of the honesty and vulnerability displayed on Has Been. Shatner's character on BL, like his voice on Has Been, is struggling with age and decline. It's hardly the likeliest material for a buffoonish camp object wallowing in self-conscious mediocrity. That he can make us laugh at the same time ("Live life like you're gonna die, because you're going to...") makes its achievement that much more remarkable.