We gave it a B
A new Santana album — this one is the 26th — might just as well come with a checklist, so fans can figure out quickly whether anything new is going on. Does Santana’s music still sound busy and percussive? Yes. Does Carlos Santana still solo on guitar? Of course. Does his band indulge in Latin rhythm? Naturally. Does he cover other people’s songs? Sure. This time he chooses ”Gypsy Woman,” a piece of romantic nonsense originally sung by Curtis Mayfield, and the Isley Brothers’ ”That Lady,” which he renames ”Who’s That Lady” and slathers with up-to-date funk bass lines and hip-hop beats. There’s also a brief quotation from Jimi Hendrix’s ”Third Stone From the Sun.”
Is Santana still spiritual? Check the album’s name: Spirits Dancing in the Flesh. That’s also the title of the bustling opening song, preceded by a rapturous introduction called ”Let There Be Light,” which paints a picture of a paradise ”where nothing dies or ever grows old.” Yes, Santana still is spiritual, and — with songs about South Africa (”Soweto (Africa Libre)”), urban troubles in America (”It’s a Jungle Out There”), and the environment (a three- part song ending with the Hendrix excerpt) — also politically concerned.
Since this is a Santana album, it naturally has guest artists. Two are unsurprising. Bobby Womack, the ’70s R&B star, sings one song; the subtle veteran jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter solos in another. But — imagining the guests all lined up in a row — who’s that shaggy younger guy? It’s Vernon Reid, leader of the challenging black hard-rock band Living Colour, who coproduced two songs and plays guitar on one of them.
Reid might have given Santana’s music an edge it never had before. But he doesn’t. The songs he produces sound cleaner than the rest of the album, but otherwise not much different; even the characteristic bite of Reid’s guitar playing hardly registers.
Overall, Spirits Dancing in the Flesh remains a better-than-average example of Santana’s work. It’s a mixed bag of sentimentality, propulsive beats, and fluent professionalism; it’s honest music that can sometimes sound numbingly familiar.