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Album: William Shatner, "Seeking Major Tom" (Cleopatra)

At this point in his career and life (which are as inseparable as Leonard Nimoy from his Spock  ears) nothing Bill Shatner did would surprise you unless it was something so shocking, so revelatory and possibly out-of-character that you would begin to question every assumption you ever held about the man and his work.

At this point in his career and life (which are as inseparable as Leonard Nimoy from his Spock ears) nothing Bill Shatner did would surprise you unless it was something so shocking, so revelatory and possibly out-of-character that you would begin to question every assumption you ever held about the man and his work.

"Seeking Major Tom" is not that thing. This is Shatner, licking his wounds after the travesty that was "$#*! My Dad Says" (a Top 10 worst sitcom ever contender, and even that's an impressive feat given the decades of execrable contenders) and returning to that place he knows best and the place we want him most: space. More specifically: bad lounge singing. In space.

Kicking off with a note-perfect retelling of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)" (itself a retelling of Bowie's "Space Oddity"), Shatner and friends (and he's got a lot of them; guest stars here run the gamut from Peter Frampton to Bootsy Collins, with a pinch of Brad Paisley and Sheryl Crow tossed in for good measure) set the tone straight off the bat: "drifting ... floating ... falling" he intones solemnly, while a New Wave chorus bops along behind him, his poker face never cracking.

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And then into "Space Oddity" itself, and we're completely in Shatner's wheelhouse, not the po-faced Dramatic Summoner who mangled "Rocket Man" so deliciously in an infamous late '70s sci-fi awards show reading, but the later, self-aware man who became complicit in his awesomeness with a series of memorable television commercials for Priceline.com and an utterly brilliant version of Pulp's "Common People" (complete with shredding Joe Jackson vocal) that destroyed so utterly that most people don't even seem to realize it was a cover. "Oddity" is perfect foil to Elton John's "Rocket Man," but he's surprisingly decided to go low-key here: if I told you last week that William Shatner had recorded an understated version of "Space Oddity," you would have slapped my face, and I would have deserved it. But here it is.

He's floating around in space but he's still tethered to earth: a version of U2's "In a Little While" with Lyle Lovett is almost sweet while the Frampton-guested take on "Spirit on the Sky" is sincere and straightforward and stands up pretty well to the Norman Greenbaum original. Shatner himself doesn't even appear on a cover of electronic musician K.I.A.'s "Mrs. Major Tom," instead letting Crow contribute a lovely, lifting solo vocal over tasteful orchestration.

But that's about it for restraint. The bulk of the album is exactly what you'd expect -- full-on raging Shatner, with all that implies. The spoken word version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" is, rightfully, garnering the lion's share of advance word-of-mouth. And it is precisely as corny and tortured as you know it's going be ("Mama!" he wails, convincingly. "I don't want to die! I sometimes ... wish ... I'd never been ... BORN AT ALL!").

But it's on the truly out-there tracks like a Latin-funk take on "Space Truckin'" where "Tom" really zooms out past the outer limits of the solar system; the track almost feels like a surreal Minutemen goof from 1984, with a beatnik Shatner hollering "Come on! Come on! Come on let's go ... SPACE TRUCKING!" over bongos and electric guitar soloing. Likewise, a honky-tonk takedown of the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman" (accompanied by legendary Kinks guitarist Dave Davies) hovers between clever reinvention and ramblings of a lunatic. You're waiting for the inevitable call of "HEY! MR. SPACEMAN!" and are smugly satisfied when it comes -- and yet left wishing it was shoutier, somehow.

On the other hand, Shatner is happy to provide the shouting just a few tracks later, on the penultimate "Iron Man." Accompanied by former Ozzy Osbourne sideman Zakk Wylde, Shatner tears it up predictably and faithfully. This isn't white-belted Pat Boone donning a leather vest and aping heavy metal moves in an ill-fated attempt to "connect with the kids," Shatner really seems to be into this stuff. He knows it's terrible. We know it's terrible. He knows we know it's terrible.

it doesn't matter: something in that equation makes it pretty great. Mars may not be the kind of place to raise your kids (in fact it's cold as hell), but for 80-year-old William Shatner, it sure feels like home.

 

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