Review: William Shatner – Seeking Major Tom

Disc 1
1. Major Tom (Coming Home) (Peter Schilling cover)
2. Space Oddity (David Bowie cover) 3. In a Little While (U2 cover)
4. Space Cowboy (Steve Miller Band cover)
5. Space Truckin’ (Deep Purple cover)
6. Rocket Man (Elton John cover)
7. She Blinded Me with Science (Thomas Dolby cover)
8. Walking on the Moon (The Police cover)
9. Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum cover)
10. Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen cover)
11. Silver Machine (Hawkwind cover)
12. Mrs. Major Tom (ft. Sheryl Crow)

Disc 2
1. Empty Glass (The Tea Party cover)
2. Lost in the Stars (Frank Sinatra cover)
3. Learning to Fly (Pink Floyd cover)
4. Mr. Spaceman (The Byrds cover)
5. Twilight Zone (Golden Earring cover)
6. Struggle
7. Iron Man (Black Sabbath cover)
8. Planet Earth (Duran Duran cover)

Well, this ain’t even fair.  How can any covers album — EVER — expect to compete with the inimitable William Shatner performing 18 space-themed cover songs on his first covers album since 1968′s widely-mocked The Transformed Man?  I mean, it’s f-ing William Shatner, delivering the lyrics to a collection of (mostly) classic rock tracks in his trademark melodramatic stop-and-start vocals, with some of the biggest names in music performing the instruments on nearly every track.  On top of that, it’s a goddamn concept album — not only are the songs themed around outer space, but Shatner ties all of the tracks together by utilizing an actual NASA communication on a few songs and by reprising a few lines from “Rocket Man,” “Major Tom (Coming Home),” and “Space Oddity” at the beginning and end of other tracks throughout the two discs.

At this point, you’re probably sitting there with a raised eyebrow muttering, “this is ridiculous!” Well, I won’t argue.  Seeking Major Tom is so ridiculous that it could be an internet meme, albeit one of the best.  But ever since Shatner’s 1978 performance of “Rocket Man” at The Science Fiction Film Awards, this album was inevitable.  And it was always going to be hugely overblown, memorably odd, and completely silly.  But that’s part of Shatner’s charm — he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  These aren’t supposed to be musical masterpieces or skillful artistic interpretations.  They’re just fun.

Shatner even admitted to not having heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” before this cover, and yet his performance is the most original interpretation of “the top British single ever” since Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele version.  On the first listen, it’s obvious that Shatner’s spoken-word stylings were destined to meet the Queen masterpiece at some point: when he intones “ANY way… the wind… blows” in the song’s last moments, you’ll be hard-pressed not to applaud.  If “Bohemian Rhapsody” were the only memorable track on Seeking Major Tom, the album would still be worth every penny.

Fortunately, it’s not.  Shatner’s NASA-inflected renditions of Peter Schilling‘s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” and its brother, Bowie‘s “Space Oddity,” begin the album with flair as those extraterrestrial synths on the chorus of “Major Tom” offset Shatner’s charismatic proclamations: “EARTH… below us… drifting… falling?”  After a few rather mediocre U2 and Deep Purple songs, “Rocket Man” finally gets the studio treatment (don’t worry, Shatner still asserts that he’s the “rock-IT man” in the final verse), and the former Captain Kirk sounds perfectly at home on”Spirit in the Sky” and the funky ’80s hit “She Blinded Me with Science.”  The latter is the album’s most memorable moment, after “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Disc 2, however, is the runt of this litter: though Shatner sounds somewhat more comfortable than David Gilmour himself “singing” the post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd hit “Learning to Fly,” and “Twilight Zone” and “Planet Earth” were wise choices, the covers of obscure song “Empty Glass,” loungey number “Lost in the Stars,” and original “Struggle” are as bland and boring as an Enterprise episode.  And then there’s “Iron Man,” Shatner’s one misstep, a track that is unintentionally hilarious in the same way that Sarah Palin is: it goes on way past its expiration date and won’t just shut the hell up.  The second disc, despite its handful of enjoyable tracks, doesn’t quite match the spoken-word genius of the first disc.

Seeking Major Tom is one of the most epic musical moments of 2011, and it works because — like the original Star Trek series or Shatner’s recent masterful acting performance on Boston Legal – it has replayability.  The “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover, in particular, is a track I will play for my children in decades while trying to explain the charisma, charm, and appeal of Denny Crane/Captain James T. Kirk to them.  There’s no-one in the world at all like William Shatner, and I’d hazard that there never will be — therefore, there will never be a cover album at all like this one.

Stream: “She Blinded Me with Science (Thomas Dolby cover)”