Posthumously released recordings predictably arouse cries of necrophilia from critics, but usually the music itself is too dull to truly inflame anyone’s passions. There is nothing bloodless, however, about “You Know You’re Right,” a previously unreleased song from Nirvana included on a greatest-hits collection simply titled Nirvana. The composition was at the center of a legal battle (now apparently settled) between Courtney Love and band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. “You Know You’re Right” was the last song Kurt Cobain recorded with Nirvana, in January 1994, and it’s every bit as bleak as the moment it represents. It begins with sinister, wiry guitar chords and Grohl’s ominous percussion, then explodes the way many a Nirvana song explodes. But Cobain, smarter and more complex than his self-abasing image suggests, transforms lyrics like “I will never follow you / I will never bother you” – into an angry dare that’s impossible to ignore. The rest of Nirvana confirms what most of us already know: that magnificent songs are buried under all the layers of noise. Trouble is, “You Know You’re Right” is art so true that it not only makes the lie of liner notes touting “the absolute magic and democracy of rock ’n’ roll” seem unimaginably perverse but levels nearly every once-formidable song surrounding it.
Like Supernatural, Santana’s Shaman trots out an unceasingly uninteresting parade of pop personalities (Musiq, Michelle Branch, Dido) singing against a patina of Latin music so drained of ethnicity and soul that it makes Herb Alpert seem like Sun Ra by comparison. Anyone over 14 was hip to the accommodations Santana had to make for his recent stardom, but implicit in the success of Supernatural was the hope that perhaps he’d take a risk or two with his next project. Shaman, an album whose motto might be “All accommodating, all the time,” throws water on that idea and makes us feel like fools for even thinking it. But perhaps it’s unfair to expect Santana to wriggle out of the confines of the music industry, which bullies Webcasters, pays radio stations hundreds of thousands to get music played, and shows no interest in art that sells under a million copies. Democracy in action, right?