Creedence Clearwater Revival made four of the greatest albums in Rock history (Bayou Country, Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys, and Cosmo’s Factory), but they also made three albums that were at least comparative failures. In the case of their self-titled debut, this can be chalked up to artistic immaturity (frankly, underwhelming as it is in retrospect, it is certainly far from the worst debut album ever released by a great band). In the case of their seventh and last album, Mardi Gras, it can be attributed primarily to the supporting members of the band, who were really little more than frontman John Fogarty’s backing combo, being allowed to write and sing their own songs, which they turned out to be spectacularly unqualified to do.
Fogarty always tries to shift the responsibility for the band’s downfall to that album, presumably because he can reasonably blame someone else for its problems. But their album immediately prior to that fiasco, Pendulum, which probably did a lot to prompt the internal rebellion that led to Mardi Gras, can only be blamed on Fogarty himself, who apparently got bored with the formula that had made him a Rock legend and started experimenting with other sounds in the most misguided way possible.
All right, that might be a little bit of an exaggeration. This isn’t a terrible album…certainly nowhere near as bad as Mardi Gras (although that said, even Mardi Gras produced two songs that qualify as Creedence classics, the scorching “Sweet Hitchhiker” and the heartbreaking “Someday Never Comes”, whereas this album only managed to produce one, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”).
But coming from a band this brilliant, it was a massive step downward in quality from their last four releases, and it served as a visible turning point for Fogarty, who would never again recapture the heights of the earlier Creedence albums, either with the band or in his solo career. Even Centerfield, by common consensus the best of his solo album releases, doesn’t approach the level of the “peak four” of his Creedence years (though it is significantly better than the album under survey here).
This album is often described as the most “sonically adventurous” Creedence album, but that’s really just a euphemism for “the one that sounds least like a Creedence album”. The opening track, “Pagan Baby”, is the only thing here that sounds like Creedence’s normal sound, and even it is significantly less memorable than any of their songs since their self-titled album. A few of the songs resemble a kind of Soft Rock variant on the traditional Creedence “Swamp-Rock”, particularly “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, “(Wish I Could) Hideaway”, and “It’s Just a Thought”. This style actually works on the album’s one enduring classic, “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, just because the songwriting is so strong. But elsewhere, it just feels like a weak diet substitute for “real” Creedence.
On the rest of the album, Creedence seem to be randomly pinging between every other subgenre of Rock at the time but their own. This is particularly ironic given that this is the only Creedence album that contains no covers…all these songs are by John Fogarty, but most of them seem to be Fogarty trying to sound like other people. For example, he attempts a Funk groove on “Born to Move” and a psychedelic sound on the closing instrumental “Rude Awakening #2” (neither very well, I might add).
Elsewhere, “Sailor’s Lament” seems to be trying to imitate American Beauty-era Grateful Dead, “Chameleon” emulates the horn-driven Jazz-Rock sound of Chicago, “Hey Tonight” has the jangly chime of a Byrds song, and “Molina” sounds like something someone like Buddy Holly might have recorded in the 1950s. But none of these sounds are executed as well as the bands that pioneered them (particularly “Sailor’s Lament”, which is the most embarrassing item heard on a Creedence album prior to Mardi Gras).
On top of that, this array of incompatible styles sabotages the album’s ability to function as a cohesive whole. It’s worth noting that Creedence’s four masterpieces (except perhaps the more singles-oriented Cosmo’s Factory) all hold together beautifully as cohesive, unified albums, while their lesser records are merely random collections of songs that happen to be grouped on a single disc. That’s definitely the case here…virtually none of the songs sound like they belong to the same band, let alone on the same album.
As I said above, this isn’t a disaster by any means…just a sad signpost of John Fogarty’s gradual decline after an amazing peak. But it hasn’t aged well…indeed, of all Creedence’s albums, this may be the one that has suffered the most with the passage of time: Mardi Gras was just as bad when it was released as it is now, but compared with the oddly timeless, Folksong-like quality of earlier Creedence, this album has come to look worse and worse as many of the styles it “experimented” with have fallen painfully out of fashion.
But beyond all that, it’s ultimately just an incompatible hodge-podge of mostly not-very-interesting songs, and despite Fogarty’s own insistence on classifying both this album and the self-titled debut in the same category as the “peak four”, that assessment should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.