Now that Carlos Santana has rewritten the book on late-career comebacks, what does he do for an encore?
The answer arrived yesterday with Shaman, the follow-up to the 1999 pop landmark Supernatural, which sold 25 million copies, spent two years on the Billboard 200 album chart (12 weeks at No. 1) and hauled in nine Grammy Awards.
Supernatural was masterminded by longtime Santana mentor Clive Davis, who signed the guitarist to his original deal at Columbia Records more than 30 years ago.
The album was designed to get Santana back on the charts by pairing him with a batch of contemporary hitmakers, regardless of how little they had in common with the guitarist's Latin-rock heritage: Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas, Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Everlast, Dave Matthews.
Davis carved Supernatural into radio fiefdoms, with a track for every format: pop, hip-hop, hard-rock, soul. Santana's guitar was used merely as seasoning, his south-of-the-border voicings muted, his passion for jazz and world music reduced to instrumental filler.
Shaman shrinks Santana's role even more. Once again orchestrated by Davis, the new disc grafts Santana's magnificent guitar onto 16 tracks that range even farther afield for crossover hits than those on Supernatural. There's metal from P.O.D. (the turgid "America"), hip-hop from Jean (the overwrought "Since Supernatural"), trip-hop from Dido (the snoozy "Feels Like Fire") and even a cameo from Placido Domingo that sounds like it was phoned in between Three Tenors tour dates ("Novus").
At least Supernatural boasted a handful of terrific songs, particularly Everlast's "Put Your Lights On," but the songwriting - and the talent - is a cut below that standard on Shaman. Not a single performer on the new record is in Santana's league, and it's an insult to this legend that he's relegated to knocking out pedestrian power chords behind Nickelback journeyman Chad Kroger on "Why Don't You & I" or wedging guitar fills between groan-inducing lines like "Roll me, control me, console me, please hold me" on the vapid pop ditty "The Game of Love," sung by Michelle Branch.
That Santana is relegated to a sideman on his own album is an indication of how artistically bankrupt the mainstream music industry has become, and how cynical record-biz moguls like Davis have grown in dealing with radio programmers and consumers. It's difficult to blame Santana for playing along. After 20 years of encroaching irrelevance, a relic in the age of Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit, he finds himself playing to his largest audiences since the Woodstock era.
But after reviving his career with Supernatural, Santana once again had options. Why not use his newfound clout to build an entire album around his guitar and his pioneering acid-salsa sound, perhaps teaming with some of the new rock en espanol bands such as Cafi Tacuba and Kinky to create the ultimate Latin-rock fusion? That certainly would have sounded more organic than the Rob Thomas-written ballad "You Are My Kind," sung by Seal, which reduces one of the world's greatest guitarists to an afterthought. On Shaman, more of the same is actually less.
What might have been? Shaman offers a few hints. The most explosive tracks are those recorded with his touring band, particularly a supercharged Afro-funk cover of "Adouma," from a 1994 album by African vocalist Angelique Kidjo. The Latin-rock flame burns brightest on a horn-spackled "Foo Foo," with Santana spinning out a dazzling string of notes; "Aye Aye Aye," which reunites the guitarist with original drummer Michael Shrieve; and the astral ballad "Victory is Won," the guitar solo conjuring images of Aztecs-on-Mars majesty.
Though a couple of the cameos click - in particular Macy Gray's "Amore (Sexo)" and Ozomatli's "One of These Days" - what Shaman proves above all is that Santana has a far stronger grasp on what makes his music soar than any of his collaborators.
That he didn't trust that vision enough, or wasn't allowed to trust it by Clive Davis, is why Shaman stumbles.
Greg Kot is popular music critic for the Chicago Tribune.
'Shaman (Arista)* *