William Shatner’s frankly bizarre musical career has long been the stuff of ridicule, since his first album at the end of the 1960s. Shatner’s oddball deliver of popular songs – a heavily dramatised spoken word interpretation – has been constantly mocked. But since he returned to recording a decade or so ago, a funny thing has happened. While the mainstream critics still sneer (often without actually listening), Shatner has produced a series of fascinating records that both bring a new level to well known songs and reveal a human, self-reflective side to the man. That his work has taken in heavy metal and indie pop music is remarkable (making him, together with Christopher Lee, one of the oldest metal frontmen out there!) – that he’s done it so well is more amazing still. Listen to his stunning cover of Pulp’s Common People from Has Been and try to tell me that it isn’t an astonishing, passionate, epic work.
Shatner’s latest album, Ponder the Mystery, sees him move into prog rock and is notable for only containing original material – all lyrics are by Shatner and music by Yes member Billy Sherwood. That immediately removes the possibility of a ‘camp’ cover version for people to chortle at.
Prog rock is actually perfect for Shatner’s style, given the history of narration and spoken word on prog albums. It must be said that Sherwood’s music is very much prog-lite – more pomp, in fact, or perhaps light jazz lacking the ferocity or complexity of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer or any other classic 70’s prog act. That’s not entirely a bad thing, as this is, after all, Shatner’s album and the music is designed to highlight what is, effectively, his poetry.
,The album is a conceptual piece that follows the emotional journey of a man who is facing his own mortality – something the 82 year old Shatner must be able to relate to only too well. It therefore feels like a brave move to stare death in the face so boldly, as on So Am I, where the narrator talks with sad affection about his pet dog: “And now he’s old and stiff and sore / And getting ready to die / And when I look at him with love / I realise… so am I”.
Themes of mortality run through Where It’s Gone… I Don’t Know and the confessional Deep Down (“Deep Down I’m afraid… Deep Down everything scares me”) but the album isn’t morbid – if this is the last act of a man looking back on his life, then he’s doing so with affection,a sense of wonder and a sense of humour. There’s certainly a tongue in cheek element to some of the album, with Shatner playing up his infamous stop-start delivery and emphasising the rather oddball nature of his poetry (“a parrot can be offered a carrot but a stick will do”). It’s fair to say that Shatner’s poems will probably never make a school syllabus, but there’s something charming and eccentric about his sometimes rather child-like references that makes the more personal and emotive moments all the more affecting.
Imagine Things discusses irrational fears and I’m Alright, I Think takes a positive spin on ageing – looking at the positives of being alive rather than the fear of death and living for the moment. Where Does the Time Go? looks back, without bitterness, on the fleeting nature of existence, and album closer Alive ends with a sense of joy that the narrator / Shatner has been searching for throughout the album.
While the bulk of the music is performed by Sherwood’s band Circa, each track has guest performers – and it’s a stellar bunch of names. George Duke, Mick Jones, Steve Vai, Rick Wakeman, Robby Krieger, Nik Turner, Edgar Winter, Edgar Froese and others enhance the songs with sympathetic, sometimes pivotal contributions. Their presence perhaps lends a certain prog credibility to the project, but in reality it doesn’t need it – this is genuinely astonishing stuff. A bizarre hybrid of styles, certainly, but one that oddly works thanks to Shatner’s strange sense of honesty.
The thing is, Shatner could have easily knocked out another album of ironic covers – or could’ve just stayed home altogether. It’s not as if he needs the money. That he opened up to make this undeniably eccentric and rather brilliant album is a testament to his need to keep creating. I’ll take this over the continued bitter sniping from the sidelines from ex-Star Trek second stringers any day.
Like the best conceptual pieces, Ponder the Mystery works best as a whole – the lyrics and music combining and evolving to tell the eventually uplifting story of a man glad to be alive. Let’s hope he has plenty more years left, and more albums to make.