William Shatner’s ‘The Blues’ does massive injustice to blues genre

Photo of William Shatner's "The Blues"
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Grade: 1.5/5.0

William Shatner didn’t just stop at Captain Kirk — in fact, he went far beyond acting, releasing a series of albums and spoken word compilations since 1968. The 90-year-old singer should be commended for showing his dedication to the blues with a series of covers released Oct. 2. Aptly titled “The Blues,” Shatner’s latest album features established musicians from a variety of guitar-based genres. And yet, Shatner doesn’t follow through with his enticing promise of a proper homage to the rich and moving blues genre. While the record offers some songs that remotely evoke the jaunty nature of the blues, it promptly ruins them by forcing staccato vocals on top.

“Sweet Home Chicago” morphs into a strange, quasi-blues-country song, with a cacophony of guitar twangs that overlap in a jarring way. Shatner twists Robert Johnson’s seemingly harmless lyrics into an inharmonious delivery — instead of serenading the listener, Shatner seems to shout at them. The instrumentals are pleasing, a standard blues riff that somewhat mimics the original in a duller manner, but you’re still better off listening to The Blues Brothers’ version.

Things take a much weirder turn with “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” a cover of Willie Dixon and Otis Rush’s 1956 tune. Shatner’s strange spoken-word delivery just doesn’t fit with the instrumentals. The artist’s wails end up sounding like yells instead of vocalizations, detracting from the lilting, balladlike qualities of the song.

Some songs on the album, like “Born Under a Bad Sign” and “Smokestack Lightnin’,” do have dynamic, plucky blues instrumentals, played by talented guitarists. These too fall prey to spoken-word lyrics that lessen the impact of the song and leave listeners feeling confused as to what hybrid monster they’ve just listened to.

The biggest abomination on the album is Shatner’s cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” A song this great clearly places high expectations on any cover of it, and Shatner’s starts out promising. The darker, muffled guitar sounds and pounding drums, which replace the sharp, bright tones of Eric Clapton’s strums and Ginger Baker’s beats, are enough to pique the interest of those listening. But Sonny Landreth’s dark take on Clapton’s iconic riffs and solos promptly prove that this interpretation won’t do Clapton much justice. The worst part of the song is none other than Shatner’s choppy, monotone delivery that completely detracts from the melody of the song, fraught with awkward pauses and misconstrued seriousness. If “Clapton is God,” as the saying goes, then this cover is outright blasphemy.

The one saving grace on the album is “The Thrill is Gone,” all thanks to former-rock-legend-turned-Renaissance-man Ritchie Blackmore and his magical guitar. Blackmore’s beautiful guitar fills and true blues playing do what they can to elevate the song to the top instrumentally, and the piano flourishes are an additional pleasant touch. Still, however, Shatner’s star-studded lineup is simply not enough to save his frankly sad excuse for a blues album.

“The Blues” has so much potential, but it falls flat instead of bringing back the classic love for blues through a Shatner-esque lens. The spirit is there, and so is the musical formula, but the heart and soul are missing; those elements are found in the wails and melodies of the vocals, which Shatner promptly slaughters with his ill-fitting tone of voice. One may even think his spoken-word style and deep voice would be fitting for a blues album — instead, they stick out like a sore thumb.

Shatner doesn’t seem to realize that blues and spoken word are a combination that rarely produces enjoyable music. The often decent, if not quite catchy, bluesy guitars would have been bearable if accompanied by singing, but were cut sharply by Shatner’s oft-emotionless commentary. It’s an album you want to like, but doing so would mean casting off all you know about blues. Blues are meant to be sung, and Shatner does a variety of excellent and pioneering blues songs a great disservice with “The Blues.”

Contact Pooja Bale at [email protected]. Tweet her at @callmepbj.