'Ponder the Mystery' arrives at warp speed from a parellel universe, where octogenarian actors pass their twilight years recording lavishly-produced albums of prog-rock spoken-word philosophy. It is a much more ambitious album than 2011's 'Seeking Major Tom' but, sadly for Shatner fans, it's also a less enjoyable one. The problem with 'Ponder the Mystery' lies squarely with the music. Shatner's vocals are as peerlessly eccentric as you would expect, his philosophical contemplations of life, mortality and transcendence are everything you would hope for, but (and its a big but) the album is rendered almost unlistenable by the obtrusion on every track of 1970s-style jazz-rock-prog fusion and/or male-menopausal cock-rock guitar shredding. Sadly, it's the ugly guitars, syrupy saxophones and Billy Sherwood's horrible vocoded and autotuned vocals that hog centre stage in too many of the tracks, leaving far too little of the spotlight for Shatner himself.
Ben Folds, where were you?? With more sympathetic, less overblown arrangements, the album's strongest songs ('Where it's Gone I Don't Know', 'So Am I', 'Rhythm of the Night' and the title track) could easily have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the very best tracks on 'Has Been'. As it is, Shatner allows his songwriting and his performance both to be swamped by an enfolding miamsa of less-than-cosmic prog. It's a crying shame, and a real missed opportunity.
Despite the album's immense musical drawbacks, it's still bizarrely compelling, thanks only to Shatner's jaw-dropping speculations on life, death, the universe and everything in between. Who else in music is asking questions as big as these nowadays: Where does time go? What is the seed within the seed? Is death an ending or a beginning? What do wombats think about when they look at the moon? Shatner digs to the very core of his thespian skills to deliver these musings with the gravitas they deserve. It is impossible to listen and remain unmoved.