“Supernatural” at ten years and Santana’s downward spiral.

A lean, mean, Latin-rock machine at Woodstock.

Young, gifted and proudly Latin.

Never mind a dream deferred.  What happens when a dream is realized?

I count myself as a hardcore fan of Santana, but while I am a fan of the man and the band, I am not a fan of Supernatural.   In many ways it’s success marks the end of  Santana as a cutting-edge artist.

 Carlos Santana’s Supernatural  marks it’s 10th anniversary in 2009  and proved success can be great for an artist’s bottom line, but can come at the cost of them spending a lot of time making increasingly tame and safe music vainly trying to catch lightning in a bottle again.   Michael Jackson faced the same problem after Thriller.  His following albums enjoyed varying degrees of success, but how many times can you make the best-selling record of all time?  Once should be enough, but it wasn’t for Jackson. 

Singing winds, crying beasts and that ass-kickin guitar.

Singing winds, crying beasts and that ass-kickin' guitar.

The same thing applies to Santana.  Supernatural was a happy pairing of shrewd marketing, shiny production, and good, if not particularly great, guitar playing by Carlos.  Unfortunately, for this veteran Santana fan, it also heralded the end of an era as stopped taking risks and started playing it safe and following a formula.  Carlos praises Miles Davis,  Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, but these days duets with  the likes of Big Boi, Will i. Am and Chad Kroeger. 

I half expect somebody like Soulja Boy or Lady GaGa to show up on his next album and then I’ll try not to puke up a lung when Carlos says some trippy-dippy hippie crap like, “I feel Lady GaGa is a connected soul with the oneness of the universe.” 

15 million sold, nine Grammys and one mediocre album.

15 million sold, nine Grammys and one mediocre album.

Several years ago, during a trip to New York  I found in a record shop the three-lp Lotus album which was only available at the time as a Japanese import.   I clutched my prize, pulled out my $30 bucks and stood behind Bianca Jagger to make my purchase.  I’ve seen Santana close to a dozen times, bought every album and consider him rock’s most underrated guitarist.  Behind Jimi Hendrix and maybe Eddie Van Halen, but far ahead of Pete Townsend and Keith Richards.  

 I heard Carlos perform much of Supernatural  in concert before the album was released. “Smooth” was performed live by vocalist Tony Lindsay instead of Rob Thomas, but it still sounded great.  My wife and I were up out of our seats dancing at the time but had no clue “Smooth” would  go on to be the song of 1999. 

 Supernatural was and is a muddled assortment of songs that work and others that don’t work at all.    Some of the collaborations that were problematic then are complete failures now.   The worst offenders are  the wretched “Put Your Lights On” featuring the rapper/vocalsit Everlast who wasn’t remarkable at rapping or singing, “Wishing It Was” with Eagle-Eye Cherry (who?) and the aimless “Do You Like the Way” with a sleepy rap by Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo pre-Gnarls Barkley vocals.   It doesn’t help.

“Love of My Life” is marred by the exquistely awful Dave Matthews and only partially redeemed by a sizzling Santana solo.  I have a feeling bigger things were expected from the song, but it was roundly ignored by radio and justifably so.   It sucks.  Hard.   

The stand out songs are “Smooth,” “Migra,” ” Corazon Espinado,”  “Primavera” and “The Calling” featuring Eric Clapton, mostly because Carlos doesn’t try so hard for something radio-friendly.   He just plays his ass off.   “Corazon Espinado” is a mash-up between the Santana band and Mana, the Mexican pop/rock band that kicks maximum ass.   Like so many Santana songs it’s sung entirely in Spanish without translation and Carlos shreds his guitar wringing out one firery lick after another.  

Supernatural is no masterpiece, but it still has  an energy missing from the Shaman and All I Am follow-ups albums.    Santana has never made a totally worthless album (though Illuminations with Alice Coltrane comes awfully close), but  even when he cranking out lazy, aimless albums such as Shango and Zebop!  featuring Alexander Ligertwood’s underwhelming vocals and some terrible songs, there was always at least a few redeeming moments provided courtesy of Carlos’ guitar and the drums/congas/timbales percussion section led by Armando Peraza and Raul Rekow.

The only thing messier than the cover is the music.

The only thing messier than the cover is the music.

Unfortunately, Carlos has become a sideman on his own albums deferring to the guest vocalist of the moment and shuffling his own band to the sidelines.    I listened to Shaman one afternoon with my brother while we were playing video games and we just looked at each other in unhappy dismay over how BAD it was.   It was easily one of the most terrible albums a major artist released following a hugely successful one.  Neither Shaman or All That I Am are part of Santana collection and I have nearly all of his main studio and live albums on CD.    

There were always guest musicians on previous Santana albums, but guests are what they were.   The change in philosophy now is the guest vocalists lead the way and Carlos just hangs back in the mix playing rhythm and an occasional lead just to remind everyone it’s his name on the cover.    As for the signature Latin percussion section of the Santana band,  it’s getting harder to find them buried way down in the mix lest they impolitely overwhelm the vocals.   

But a decade ago  it was “Smooth” that drove Supernatural to sell 15 million copies and nine Grammys including Album of the Year.  It’s simply a perfect piece of pop music enhanced by the signature Santana guitar.  Sung by Rob Thomas of  the band Matchbox 20, it was originally written for George Michael, but ended up in the hands of Santana instead.  Carlos liked it and had Thomas sing it.  The rest is history–literally.   “Smooth” spent 12 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. 

You couldn’t get away from it.  Unless you were deaf or on the moon, you heard “Smooth.”  Not only was it easily  Carlos’ biggest hit per Wikipedia, “Smooth” is by some standards the biggest hit ever on Billboard’s charts and in the magazine’s ranking of the top 100 songs of the first 50 years of the Top 100, it ranked second only to “The Twist.”

The last Weather Report album showcased Santanas guitar.

The last Weather Report album showcased Santana's guitar.

Bigger than the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley or Madonna is a little ol’ song by a band that last definitive moment came 30 years earlier at Woodstock.   Supernatural may end up to be the last “super album” to dominate the charts and rack up sales like that.  Music has become even more fragmented than it was in 1999 and the full-length album format seems to be one younger listeners are turning away from.

Why slog through the crap tracks even on Supernatural when all you want is the hits?   The ability to download only the songs you want and ignore the ones you don’t is killing the album format.  Since Carlos always made better albums than singles,  the transition from guitar god to pop music professional has not been a seamless transition. 

As long as Carlos Santana continues to make music the hope remains he will find a way to strike a balance between his artistic and commercial sides.  I’d love to see him go further into  jazz rock as he did on the final Weather Report album, This Is This where  for all intents and purposes his guitar  replaced Wayne Shorter’s saxophone. 

 If not,  I’ll always have Abraxas, Santana III, Welcome  or Amigos to remind me what a bad mutha Carlos used to be.

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2 thoughts on ““Supernatural” at ten years and Santana’s downward spiral.

  1. Hi Jeff I think I can relate to what yo are saying here, and as for me: I am not just a die hard fan of Santana; he is there very reason I started to play guitar. I remember well how I hard the Moonflower album for the first few times and all of a sudden picking up that old guitar of my father in the corner of the living room made sense to me. After long years of traveling the spiritual an religious landscape and by now a converted Christian, I must say his music got a complete new dimension but …. as you it seems to relate to the pre-supernatural times.

    I am especially fond of the Milagro album, which I initially bought as a cassette “authentic fake shop” item in Bulgaria (yet you read it right “authentic fake shop”). Many of the older albums still end up in my CD/DVD player and strangely enough more than ever.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts which are to a substantial extent my own.

  2. I agree that Carlos now seems like a sideman on his “own” albums. He still has a unique sound, but it’s really getting pretty watered down by the whole “collaboration” theme. I think this article explains the magic of his playing pretty well, but definitely alludes to the loss of the magic lately:

    Santana Playing Style

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