There’s nothing inherently offensive about William Shatner’s music career. His style is innately silly, sure – generally speaking, spoken-word recitations of pop songs strung over bombastic instrumentals – but it’s difficult to begrudge him his moment in the musical spotlight, given his hammy seriousness.
The former Captain Kirk attacks pop tunes as though they were Shakespeare monologues (or, in the case of his first musical outing, 1968’s The Transformed Man, because they’re Shakespeare monologues). The amount of sheer, campy, go-for-broke melodrama packed into his cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man” alone should, in theory, garner enough goodwill to carry Shatner through the remainder of his career. As such, his musical detours remain in the background of Shatner’s career. His career hierarchy, in descending order of importance: 3. Making music. 2. Acting. 1. Going places and being William Shatner-y.
That said, Shatner is still capable, as bizarre as it may seem, of making an excellent record. He did it once before, after all: 2005’s Ben Folds-produced Has Been was a record that played to Shatner’s strengths for winking humor and strong collaborators, while introducing a new vein of startling vulnerability. It was fun, often hilarious, and genuinely touching at times, and boasting a slam-bang set of mostly-originals that introduced personality beyond parody, something Shatner’s entire career has lacked. His latest, Seeking Major Tom, is certainly interesting, but suffers from a lack of true personality, content to trot out another collection of covers vaguely strung together by a common space theme.
It’s all just kind of wearying at this point – yes, he was on “Star Trek” and now he’s making a space album, hilarious – and Shatner simply doesn’t have any fun with these covers. Previous covers like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and his incredible take on Pulp’s “Common People” benefit from their high drama, their giddy pomposity; they were silly, yeah, but at their best, Mr. Shatner was doing his actorly job and telling a story through soliloquy. Even songs that are, in their original forms, stories fall by the wayside this time; dry readings of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” simply fall flat when Shatner phones in their lyrics. He even tries another take of “Rocket Man” on for size, except this time it’s limp, lifeless, compared to his first, oft-parodied stab at the Elton John record. On Seeking Major Tom, it’s not that Shatner’s song choices are goofy – it’s that Shatner’s performances simply aren’t goofy enough to hammer them home.
Unfortunate, because out of context, some of these songs would be downright inspired. Shatner does the impossible and takes on “Bohemian Rhapsody”, opening it with an acapella line reading of the song’s famous opening stanzas; he pulls it off, too, embodying the song’s hammy pomp ably, even screeching on the infamous final note of the opera breakdown. Thomas Dolby’s nerdy classic “She Blinded Me With Science” sounds terrific with Shatner and Bootsy Collins trading geeky barbs. And then there’s the startling standout, a take on U2’s tender latter-day classic “In A Little While”; imbued with all the wonder and wistful romanticism of Has Been, it would’ve been right at home on that record, sublime Lyle Lovett vocal solo and all.
Unfortunately, Seeking Major Tom‘s most emotionally affecting moment happens three tracks in; generally speaking, the rest of the album is a slog through vaguely-space related themes (and a stunningly out-of-place stab at Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”, complete with Shatner actually singing the song, which sounds exactly as you think it does), and little of note happens. It’s an unfortunate third record for a performer that, if not a respected vocalist, at least can show a flair for self-deprecation and entertainment that keeps his other albums afloat.