Here’s an undeniable, creed-crossing truth: Even the most determined curmudgeon harbors secret love for at least one Christmas song. Maybe the sound of “Jingle Bells” curdles your soul; I’ll bet “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” induces a sheepish longing for cocoa. No matter your preference, Scott Weiland is here to do something truly unspeakable to it. Strap yourself in, folks: The holiday-album equivalent of, “Oh god, my uncle is talking politics at the family dinner table again” has arrived, and it’s a white-knuckler.
Let’s skip the Best Week Ever-level, low-hanging-fruit snipes about rehab, Velvet Revolver or that cover art, which screams, “Just seltzer for me tonight, guys, thanks.” This project seems to have sprung from a fundamental, egregious misunderstanding: For a grunge singer, Weiland was in possession of some pretty decent pipes — rich, burnished, with a passable workingman’s vibrato that did all the wistful work his goofy lyrics didn’t. The crucial modifying clause disastrously glossed over in the conception of this project was: “for a grunge singer.” Marooned, as he is on here, in front of automatic-fireplace arrangements complete with winsomely weepy Nelson Riddle-style string charts, he is pitilessly hung out to dry. Simply put: These are some of the most face-whitening vocal takes in pop-music history. The kind that are so technically stumbling, bizarrely affected and seemingly unaware of the laws of basic human phrasing that your mind immediately flashes to the face of the studio engineer when he first heard them.
Take, for example, “The Christmas Song.” This one has been sung by everybody, but the immortal version in cultural memory is still by Nat “King” Cole. Weiland’s version apes that arrangement nearly note-for-note, allowing for edifying comparison-listening: Note the way Weiland audibly stops to gulp air during the word “Santa,” for instance, like a five-year-old who has forgotten to inhale while retelling a story. Or the way he slurs “kids” into “kitsszz” on the bridge. Or the strange Kermit-y quality his voice assumes on the climactic “Merry Christmas to you,” which, for some reason, he renders consistently throughout the album as “Kwizzmass.”
The album’s track listing doesn’t serve up a single cheery jingle for Weiland to tap out, regain his composure: It’s a relentless assault of jazz-inflected fireside classics, rife with simply un-navigable flatted-fifths and twisty phrasing: “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”; “White Christmas”; “It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year.” Hearing him slurp his way through this catalogue is like watching a bombing best-man’s speech that never ends. Just to make sure no good taste sneaks through the project’s iron bars, “Silent Night” is taken at a Casio-preset bossa nova, while “O Holy Night” is performed — no joke — as one-drop reggae. Taken together, it is a mortifying, mystifying and morbidly compelling listening. If it causes Dean DeLeo, erstwhile guitarist of Stone Temple Pilots, to pick up the phone out of concern and we get a STP reunion out of it, well then, this project will have given us our Christmas Miracle.