Carlos Santana remains an anomaly among the pantheon of classic rock guitar gods he so eminently occupies (and not only because he owns a brand of women’s shoes and an established Mexican restaurant chain). Unlike Page, Clapton or Iommi, Santana never exactly had solid songs or a solid band (for all intents and purposes, Santana is a solo moniker) there to buttress his axe-wielding, however innovative and technically flawless it might be on its own. Even the Santana records that are today regarded as classics feel a little insufficient for the particular reason that, as a composer, Santana has never quite had it going on, which may explain why his largest successes over the years have been either collaborations with other, more pop-minded artists, or rearranged cover versions of songs somebody else has written.
Unfortunately for Santana, these aforementioned collaborations have alienated longtime fans of his more serious work. Collaborators include interminably infuriating jokes like… Chad Kroeger (gag!), Rob Thomas (barf!), Chris Daughtry (make it stop!), Scott Stapp (the pain!), Steve Tyler (this is torture!)—and the list, rather regrettably, goes on for miles. It seems fair to assume that his latest effort—Shape Shifter, which Santana has produced and composed entirely, in addition to having self-released on his upstart label Starfaith—is an attempt to break away from the negative reputation he has since earned.
Sadly, it’s an endeavor that by and large backfires. All Santana’s managed to do here is jump from one sump to the next. Shape Shifter is one of Santana’s worst releases in his frighteningly extensive discography. With the exception of a single track, all of the songs are instrumentals, but not because they were necessarily designed to be: It sounds like all of these songs were recorded hastily and vocals would have only prolonged the record-making process, so the pretense of “instrumental album” serves as a convenient and equally lazy cop out. The performances are messy and lack heart, and even Santana’s guitar is unusually nondescript. Santana knew exactly what was expected of him—to release a “return to form” record to placate whiners after years of bullshit, which he’s done. To an extent. Soul sold separately.
The opening, eponymous track sets a schlepping pace that doesn’t ever let up - beginning with a splash of caricatural Latin stereotypes that are tasteless even in spite of Santana’s ethnicity, the song, after a solid minute and a half of such nonsense, finally launches into a banal “jam” that’s so bad it has you missing the intro after mere seconds. The production on the album is so amateur it’s almost unbelievable (and unlistenable): The cymbals and hi-hats are so deafeningly prominent in the mix that it’s difficult to even hear what the other, melodic instruments are doing at times. Any instrument that isn’t the guitar, drums, or bass is without exception a digital keyboard patch, another aspect of the record that is laughably outdated. This is best represented by the “cello” that guides the second track, “Dom”, which is littered with many other abhorrent classical affectations. The one song to feature vocals, “Eres La Luz”, is a relief compared with the rest of the album, but ultimately not much more than cruise-ship drivel.
In spite of its title, Carlos and company don’t really do a lot of shape-shifting on this roundly insipid record. It’s depressing that Santana, an artist who is so clearly capable of creating frenetic, passionate - sexy even - music, has produced something so soullessly inert.