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A space oddity.
on 15 November 2011
I heard the briefest mention of Seeking Major Tom in a radio interview a couple of weeks ago with William Shatner here in Canada, which got my attention, and I didn't hesitate to hunt down a copy, based not upon any particular fondness for Star Trek or knowledge of his career, but upon my regard for his previous albums The Transformed Man and Has Been.
When William Shatner released The Transformed Man he was widely ridiculed for his unfortunate versions of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and Mr Tambourine Man, but whilst these are uniquely lamentable they are not representative of the complete album. It is with thanks to the media that they have become the pieces that defined his musical career. The public wants to hear his comic interpretations of well-known songs. This album will doubtless have the hoards in stitches over his award-winning take on Iron Man, and Bohemian Rhapsody. It's great that he doesn't take himself too seriously, but Seeking Major Tom is I feel a flawed album on several levels.
The original concept was provided by Brian Perrera of Cleopatra records, to cut an album of covers of space-themed songs. Shatner, about to ditch the whole idea, found a thread that interested him in the unfinished tale of Major Tom and became intrigued with the idea of fleshing out his story. William Shatner's liner notes are the most valuable addition to the booklet (otherwise comprised chiefly of praise from the participating musicians), shedding some light on the project, but I wish he had elaborated on his choice of songs and their sequence, and how this creates a storyline, because it isn't particularly clear from simply listening to the album.
I have this - probably skewed - image of William Shatner being harassed to do this album, it's like a child tugging at his grandfather's sleeve and nagging him to stand up and perform that hilarious party trick of his, please please please! And eventually Shatner gives in with a groan, and does his crazy thing, to the delight of everyone.
This illuminates one of the crucial differences between this and his earlier albums: before he was enthusiastic about what he was doing, this time his performances are not always particularly good, at best he sounds great but elsewhere he sounds distracted or disengaged from the lyrics, so much so that things start to drag, and I begin to wish there were some spacey instrumental interludes to break up the talk, or more use of backing singers to spruce things up.
The cast of supporting musicians is largely drawn from the old guard of rockers from a bygone time, and this has its pros and cons. I think it seems to add a predictability to the sound of the album, there aren't really any surprises. Saying that, it is clear that Has Been, largely created by a younger crowd, has been influencial on this album in places. At worst the faithfulness to original arrangements results in something like karaoke, as with the clumsy cover of Duran Duran's Planet Earth and the tiresome treadmills of Twilight Zone and Silver Machine. I'm not always sure if the near-metal guitar solos are being played in earnest or in irony.
The device of tagging on sections of earlier songs at the end of several of the tracks quickly becomes irksome and I wish they'd explored other ways to achieve the result that they were aiming for, perhaps William Shatner could have written some segments for between the songs to form a narrative instead, which would have given the storyline a chance. At the least they could have separated these snippets so that the listener could programme them out.
For all of my misgivings there are several highlights in the set: the urgent Major Tom (Coming Home) gets things moving nicely; Rocket Man is very touching, a song that he has covered before and which clearly holds meaning to him; the highly amusing She Blinded Me With Science with Bootsy Collins, which spices things up; the crazed sermon Spirit In The Sky; Lost In The Stars for a standout moving vocal performance(though I'd prefer it without the saxophone); Learning To Fly; and Mr Spaceman. For these and a few others I am glad I bought this album. Everyone will have their own favourites which more than justify the purchase.