[20 January 2012]
As PopMatters’ Mike Schiller wrote of William Shatner’s Has Been in 2004, “somehow, it just might be the pop album of the year”. It was sweet, genuine, and engaging; Shatner’s take on “Common People” alone was worth the price of admission. Has Been wasn’t perfect, but it was a marked change for Shatner, whose musical “legacy” at the time was basically limited to the cringe-worthy 1968 album The Transformed Man and the iconic 1978 live cover of “Rocket Man”, which has been parodied so many times that I’ve met people who don’t realize it was something that actually happened.
Seven years after the unexpected success of Has Been, Shatner is back with Seeking Major Tom, a collection of spoken-word science-fiction covers. A collection, I should mention, which Shatner initially passed on because the very idea of Captain Kirk yelling over “Spirit In The Sky” was (and is) exploitative. In the 20-minute YouTube documentary hyping the album’s release, Shatner says that after some soul-searching he had an alternate idea: a collection of songs centering around the mythical figure of Major Tom. Plenty of songs have been written about him, starting with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, but no one has told the full story of Major Tom after he loses contact with ground control—floating away into space utterly alone, reflecting on his life, meeting his fate.
Listening to Shatner speak about it is powerful, but the chosen tracks in the order presented on Seeking Major Tom fail at the basic task of telling the story in the same meaningful, succinct way. Instead, there are good ideas floating in a morass of tangentially-related songs, all put together in an incomprehensible arrangement and packed with sampled NASA chatter and reprises (including three tracks in a row which all end with a reprise of “Space Oddity”) to cover 95 minutes over two discs.
Shatner says it best himself in the documentary when he mentions “Bohemian Rhapsody”. “What this has to do with Major Tom is somewhat elusive… I’ll let the audience figure that out.” Translation: it has little to do with Major Tom, but its inclusion will move units. But you know what? I’ll give Shatner “Bohemian Rhapsody”; it’s just touching enough in parts and weird enough overall to be the fever dreams of a dehydrated astronaut dying slowly. But “She Blinded Me With Science”? I’m not sure that trying to fuck your middle school science teacher qualifies as part of the deep thoughts of Major Tom that Shatner was looking to evoke. “Twilight Zone” is an equally good candidate for the cutting-room floor and, shoehorned between Tom’s final desperate attempt to survive (“Struggle”) and his death (“Planet Earth”), Shatner’s gruff take on “Iron Man” fits about as well as a Black Eyed Peas song fits in the middle of a Bach concerto.
Further exposing the flimsiness of the album’s conceit is its roster of guest stars: everyone from Zakk Wylde and Sheryl Crow to Bootsy Collins and Brad Paisley. I can’t imagine they just couldn’t get a good version of “Space Cowboy” without Steve Miller; and once Steve Miller is on a track, it’s mighty hard to leave it off the album. At least when Santana did his collaboration albums around the turn of the millennium, he didn’t try to claim there were deep concepts at work behind them. I want to give Shatner the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard to keep the focus on how conceptual and deeply artistic an album is when it features a roster of names as famous as the cast list for New Year’s Eve.
Not all of Seeking Major Tom is disappointing. Strip away all the bloated excess and what’s left is a good idea executed well in starts and fits. The second disc outstrips the first. Crowd-pleasing anthems like “Spirit in the Sky” and “Walking on the Moon” give way to more obscure and interesting choices, to songs that go a distance to achieving Shatner’s vision for the album. Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly” is one of the best tracks here and the Tea Party’s “Empty Glass” is incredible with its querulous, searching calls for understanding. Then there is the Shatner-penned “Struggle”, which shows what an unbelievable talent Shatner has for expressing the human condition.
Seeking Major Tom‘s highs are high, but the lows are so very low. The over-reliance on NASA chatter and reprises (13 of 20 tracks here have NASA chatter, reprises, or both); all of the semi-related songs; the cast of extras; the cover art (just look at that hideous thing!); all hamstring what could have been an interesting project from a dynamic figure in pop culture.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the story of Major Tom after losing contact with ground control ends with his death. Dehydrated and oxygen deprived, Tom turns to face Earth and, to the synth-heavy sounds of Duran Duran’s “Plant Earth”, utters the final words “I love you”. I love you too, Bill. But to quote you on a different, and much better, album: “I can’t get behind that.”