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Shatner boldly goes back into the studio

There are certain artistic endeavors that shouldn't work, but do, and we just can't explain why. Such is the case with "Has Been," the musical collaboration between actor William Shatner and pop songwriter Ben Folds, released earlier this month. Theirs is the sort of unholy coupling that screams novelty but promises little in the way of songs that a person might actually want to listen to, let alone take to heart. Shatner's last recording was 1968's "The Transformed Man," which featured conceptually elusive spoken-word interpretations of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." To the question of why he waited 35 years to make his second album, Shatner, on the phone from Los Angeles, replies succinctly but not bitterly: "Nobody asked me."

During the intervening decades, Shatner famously commanded the Starship Enterprise, pitched for Priceline.com, and landed a plum role on "The Practice" and "Boston Legal." And let's not forget "T.J. Hooker." Between gigs, the actor endured long dry spells. So one might reasonably assume that Folds, a respected craftsman and incorrigible wise guy, was attracted to this project much in the way a comic is drawn to a good joke. One would be wrong.

At the tender age of 17, captivated by Shatner's debut album, the budding composer wrote a song that he dreamed Captain Kirk might someday orate. When he scored his first hit, 1997's "Brick," Folds used his newfound leverage to fulfill his fantasy, hiring Shatner to mutter suave poetry on his solo debut, 1998's "Fear of Pop, Vol. 1." They became close friends. Shatner says that Folds has an "appealing psyche." Folds calls Shatner his "show-biz dad." "He sounds so big. He sounds so great," says Folds, who produced and wrote the music on "Has Been," attempting to explain Shatner's gift. "He's been up and down and revered and kicked, and he's just full of life. He doesn't know why it works. And he's smart enough not to want to know."

Shatner doesn't sing. He speaks. He speaks in. That unmistakably clipped and. Halting Shatnerian. Flow. There's no confusing Shatner with Leonard Nimoy, and his crooning Vulcan baritone, or Lieutenant Uhura (a.k.a. Nichelle Nichols), whose jazz chops evoke a less-distant musical dimension. Shatner, whose repertoire has up to now included exclusively material written by others, has, at the age of 73, discovered his inner lyricist. There's only one cover song on "Has Been," a mind-boggling, album-opening recitation of Pulp's "Common People" set to Folds's savage little synthesizers with guest vocals from Joe Jackson and a volunteer choir from Louisville.

"That was Ben's idea and I was resistant," Shatner says during a recent lunch break on the set of "Boston Legal." Folds also pressed Shatner to cover "Comfort Eagle" by Cake, to no avail. "But we knew that there would be an attitude of suspicion, resistance perhaps, and we knew we had to overcome that right away. To say we're serious, musically. It was a perfect song for me to act, with Joe Jackson, as the rock 'n' roller, coming to the same peaks of emotion."

Elsewhere, the actor's scenery-chewing delivery, full of portent and humor, is deeply personal, at times shockingly confessional, and truly, weirdly moving -- an effect that's enhanced by an eclectic mix of high-wattage contributors, among them punk icon Henry Rollins, country star Brad Paisley, indie goddess Aimee Mann, and guitar great Adrian Belew.

"That's Me Trying" -- the British author Nick Hornby wrote the words based on many cross-Atlantic late-night phone conversations with Shatner -- is about a neglectful father reaching out too late to an adult daughter. The title track is an indictment of dismissive critics; Folds, no stranger to the value of a wild juxtaposition, cloaks Shatner's prickly, first-person narrative ("What are you afraid of/Failure?/So am I") in a mock spaghetti-western theme. "What Have You Done" chronicles in hushed, horrified poetry, the night Shatner found his third wife floating face-down in the family swimming pool. "The older you get, the closer to death you feel, and you become conscious and sometimes preoccupied with the time that's left," says Shatner. "You think about your priorities and wonder if it's possible to change. This album is for the people I love, to explain what happened, what I thought, and where I was."

To say that this was not what Shatner's record label had in mind would be an understatement. Richard and Garson Foos, the founders of Rhino Records, approached Shatner last year about the possibility of making an album for their new company, Shout! Factory. The Foos brothers had already helped seal Shatner's dubious stature in popular culture when they rereleased several of Shatner's early recordings on Rhino's "Golden Throats" series ("The Great Celebrity Sing-Off," "More Celebrity Rock Oddities," "Celebrities Butcher the Beatles," and "Celebrities . . . At Their Worst.").

"At our first meeting, he was concerned that we wanted to do something overtly humorous, and we told him that we were open to thinking about other things," says Garson Foos. "We felt like as long as he did covers of a few songs that, given his style, they'd naturally be funny. One that kept coming to my mind was 'Losing My Religion.' But when we met with Richard and Ben a few weeks later it was clear they were going in a direction that was definitely different than what we were thinking. More dramatic and more serious. We kept saying, 'You're going to do some stuff that will be funny, right?' " Foos says "The finished product is great, even if it didn't go for the laughs." Shatner says the label was "flabbergasted and intrigued" by the album's guiding principle, which Folds provided when the actor turned to him for direction early on in the project and the songwriter counseled Shatner to just tell the truth.

He embraced that bit of advice as a religious calling, and Shatner embarked on a mission, he says, to strip away the layers and get down to it -- it, in Shatner's case, being a lifetime's worth of heartbreak and absurdity, stupendous successes and dismal failures, eye-rolling kitsch and raw vulnerability.

"He doesn't have to be cool and make the charts and fit into a box, which puts a big damper on most records," says Folds, who helped Shatner edit the reams of prose and poetry he generated for this project. "Pop artists tend to be aware of the five or six templates that we've been using since the '60s, and with the Shatner record there was none of that. It was an inspiring experience. I scrapped three quarters of my new record after working with William and just went back into the studio."

Shatner's got a new Emmy (for his role as Denny Crane in "The Practice"), a new iPod ("Good God, 'The White Album' is great!"), and a forthcoming reality show (about a large-scale prank in a small town in Iowa to debut on Spike TV early next year) that he promises will knock our socks off. All indicators point to a great renaissance. Shatner will have none of it.

"Renaissance is a rebirth, and I don't feel that I ever died," he says. "I've always been running the race. Sometimes you're in the pack and sometimes you fall behind and sometimes you nose up to be a winner. I just broke out this week."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

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