It is not every day you get to review an album by someone who is a musician, author, actor, director, producer and horse breeder. You see… I bet you didn’t know William Shatner was an actor. Only joking! The guy is a legend; his portrayal of Denny Crane in the US television series Boston Legal is still my favourite performance from Mr. Shatner. Cue a barrage of abuse from the die-hard Trekkies.
Many have pilloried Shatner for his ‘so-called’ music career. Personally, I have always thought it very unfair. His first album, The Transformed Man, released in 1968, had some wonderful versions of fantastic songs. ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ and ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ were exposed to full Shatnerfication and paired with monologues from classic literature. OK, it wasn’t a traditional album, but since when has Shatner claimed to be traditional?
Ponder The Mystery was initially released in 2013. At that time, Shatner said it was “quite possibly the most creative thing I have ever done.”. Ten years on, it has been Revisited, which has seen prodigious producer Jürgen Engler of Die Krupps fame give it a new, bold makeover. The album is steeped in prog-rock heritage. The album features performances by Steve Vai, Rick Wakeman, Hawkwind’s Simon House and Nik Turner, Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese, The Doors’ Robby Krieger, jazz great Al Di Meola, country superstar Vince Gill and plenty more. So, what do you get when you mix this all-star roster of musicians with William Shatner?
The opening track, ‘Red Shift’, promises much. It is 65 seconds of power that builds a level of excitement and anticipation. Shatner starts pondering life and humanity with ‘Where It’s Gone… I Don’t Know’ which features Mick Jones. “I’m lost in my life/Seeing the beauty and feeling apart”, bemoans Shatner as a crescendo of guitars squealing behind him.
Shatner continues to dissect his life with ‘Manhunt’. “What is true, and what is a lie?” Shatner asks himself. This seems very fitting, as picking fact from fiction and honesty from conspiracy appears to be a full-time job these days. It’s a rather plodding track with more shouty guitars. We are getting further into prog rock territory, it appears.
Steve Vai gets in on the act on ‘Ponder The Mystery’. “The spectre of starvation and the grossness of obesity/Ponder the mystery”, announces Shatner with more searing guitars but with a rather lovely violin arrangement added to the mix this time. At times, his words get a little lost in the wall of sound that bleeds through and smothers his unique poetry.
Death – it’s always a feature in Shatner’s musical adventures. Seeing his dog, Bucky, growing old, his mortality begins to register in the track ‘So Am I’. Delivered in his finest Sprechstimme (spoken word), Shatner opens his heart and mind to love and life’s fragile existence. There is a real poignancy in the first half of this track as his words are allowed to take front and centre. More unnecessarily prominent guitars then overtake him. This is starting to get on my nerves a little.
Rick Wakeman joins Shatner on ‘Change’, though there isn’t much of Shatner included. Instead, it is a typical Wakeman flight of fantasy as keyboards and synths whirl and swirls around you. It’s not bad, but it’s a bit up itself; but that’s prog rock, I guess.
As the opening bars of ‘Sunset’ play, I wonder if something different will start to appear as we move towards the album’s second half. Joel Vandroogenbroeck brings his jazz influences as Shatner orates, “We are all one in the setting sun/Not white or black/But in the twilight hour we are all one colour”. It is a song simply about truly enjoying the sunset, looking at the beautiful changing colours and hues and relating to humankind. Let’s enjoy each other because we are different and because we change. Amen to that, Bill. Musically, this works much better than the previous offerings. It creates an ethereal feel and matches Shatner’s unique delivery instead of mowing it down like many of the tracks on this album.
‘Twilight’ contains a heavy layer of saxophone – the kind you hear in a Steven Seagal movie. Nik Turner features next on ‘Rhythm Of The Night’. Shatner, doing his best impression of a beat poet, spits out the song’s title much like a misfiring machine gun. It sounds exactly like you would expect Shatner to sound – and I mean that lovingly and in a good way. “The clatter of the matter is a lot of chatter that disturbs the peace”, grooves Shatner, no doubt wearing a beret.
“The dark light of the moon and the deep shadow of the sun/Imagining we are one”, Shatner dreamily orates as he is suitably supported by Vince Gill on ‘Imagine Things’. This is a beautiful little track and, like ‘Twilight’, embraces Shatner as an equal. Now show pony antics from Gill here.
In true prog rock style, ‘Do You See?’ oft resembles someone throwing an array of instruments down a long staircase in the vain hope they will coalesce into something workable. ‘Deep Down’ follows a similar trajectory to ‘Imagine Things’ but focuses more on Shatner’s internal demons. “Everything scares me/The World is coming to an end”, he declares with a hint of panic in his voice. When the original version of this album was released, Shatner was 82 years old. Now ten years older, I doubt he’s seen anything that assuages his concerns.
“The stomach’s stopped growling/Back is loose/Head is clear/The meds? No use”, asserts Shatner in “I’m Alright, I Think”, as Dave Koz brings his finest saxophone skills to Bill’s prog rock party. Musically, this track reminds me a little of the soundtrack to 48 Hours, starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Not unpleasant but a bit repetitive.
As many of us can relate to, Shatner asks, ‘ Where Does Time Go?’. I would be a rich man if I had a quid for every time I heard someone say, “This year’s flown over” or “I can’t believe it’s October” – as if surprised that the passage of time has continued unencumbered for another year.
Last up is ‘Alive’ featuring Zoot Horn Rollo (real name Bill Harkleroad). A track with a triumphant, celebratory feel, Bill revels in embracing the day and dreaming of a bright future. “The wind carries the scent of hope and joy”, conveys Shatner as he refuses to concede to his passing years and concerns about where humanity is heading. “Life’s current flows through my veins”, proclaims an excited Shatner as the album hopes to leave us all in a stupor of positivity. It’s a bit like Scrooge when he wakes on Christmas morning.
I love how William Shatner is not afraid to put himself out there; this album is an example. Not only in trying something different but also being unafraid to peel back his layers to expose what makes the man tick and what makes him break down. Long may that continue. However, I feel this adventure did not follow the path he had hoped it would. There are too many examples on this album that seem more about the musicians showing how good they are and few working in partnership with Mr. Shatner.
We know the talents of the impressive roster of prog-rock and jazz musicians assembled on this album. Unfortunately, this is an example of where a team full of superstars do not necessarily win the trophy. A collection of individuals all trying to impress each other instead of working together. Maybe that is a harsh statement; only those involved will know the answer. From the outside looking in, that is how it feels. Thankfully, tracks like ‘Sunset’, ‘Imagine Things’ and ‘Alive’ show that the idea of a prog rock Shatner album was not a wholly bad idea.
If you want to hear William Shatner at his best, listen to his 2004 album Has Been. A successful collaboration with Ben Folds, you get to listen to the absolute best of Bill. Folds got Shatner and what they could achieve together. I still listen to it frequently almost twenty years later. I doubt I will say the same thing about Ponder The Mystery Revisited in 2043.