Most Christmas albums are a waste of digital recording space used to massacre classics (looking at you Bon Jovi) or awkwardly cash in by gruesomely sewing holiday trappings on otherwise standard band fare (I see you Erasure). Hearts of Animals has done what few other bands have managed to accomplish. They actually wrote a regular album that just happens to be about Christmas, and it is exactly the disaffected scream of despair to top of 2020.
Recorded remotely by the individual members over Zoom in August, Merry Christmas Anyway is a potent combination of the band’s trademark pop punk pep and a healthy dose of “fuck this year.” It’s kind of like a Christmas cookie with powerful hallucinogens baked in. From start to finish it both celebrates the holiday while also fully acknowledging that this is the last gasp of a terrible year.
“Christmas Time Again” opens the album strong and is what I would call the most typical Hearts of Animals track. Mlee Marie is clearly smiling when she croons “Well if hell is on the Earth then I’m sure that Christmastime is a punishment for everyone alive.” You can yell that she doesn’t really mean it, but is merely expressing the exhaustion of the various culture wars that happen around Yule like the ever present whinging about Starbucks cups not having the Three Jesuses on them or whatever that nonsense is about. As is said later in the album in “Christmas Drag, “Even Jesus would rue the day he was born”
Even more fun is the second track, “Ho Ho Ho,” a low fi post-punk song with heavy bass that is the interior monologue of a strung out Santa bitterly grinding his teeth against the holiday. It’s a good example of the playfulness that has always been part of Hearts of Animals. Though the band can and has gone pretty dark in the past, they are most at home when it’s all just pretend. Sab bastard Santa treating his job the way we’re all treating work right now fits right into that mold.
Yes, Merry Christmas Anyway is cynical, but I honestly found it hopeful. As Marie sings it “our ornaments are faded,” but there is still a great sense of enjoyment for having gotten through all of this. The album never shies away from the fact that we’re all trying to be jolly on the other side of a lot of death, poverty, and barely missed fascism, but it’s at least grateful to have gotten here. After all, recording a Christmas album in August does imply you expect there to be a December.
The only song of the eight that falls a little flat is the final track “Covid 19.” Not because it’s a bad song. In fact, it’s pretty much a modern Houston cover of Front 242’s “Hey Poor” so I’m obligated by goth law to love it. It’s just that the song loses the Christmas theme completely and breaks up what would honestly have been an otherwise perfect little concept album. If you go into the experience thinking of it only as a bonus track, it should be fine.
If more bands put out Christmas albums as true to their style as Hearts of Animals has done, the landscape of holiday music would not be such a cesspool. Take note, other acts. This can be done well.
Merry Christmas Anyway is available on Bandcamp.