Since today is Christmas Eve, (it’ll be Christmas day when you read these words) I decided that I should probably take a break from my ongoing series of reviews of the songs from U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience, and focus instead on something that was appropriate to the holiday. I’ve been writing these articles for a while now, so over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to cover most of U2’s Christmas songs. One that I have purposefully avoided, until now, was Bono’s recitation of John F. Deane’s poem “Driving To Midnight Mass: Dublin, Christmas Eve,” and that little work is what I shall be covering today.
The recitation was recorded just over thirty-three years ago in Bono’s hotel room in Chicago, Illinois, USA. That night, U2 would go on to play a show at the Aragon Ballroom as part of The Unforgettable Fire Tour’s third leg. That show was unremarkable by the standards of that tour — it had a similar setlist to all the other shows of that tour up to that point — but by all accounts it was still a great show, and was one of the band’s early shows in Chicago that would continue to establish the band’s love affair with that city. No, the most remarkable thing that happened in U2’s world that day was the recording of this holiday classic by the band’s singer for a special program that was to air on Chicago’s WXRT radio. I’ve always felt that one of the things that makes the recording truly special is Bono’s voice. He was twenty-four years old at the time, and his relative youth definitely shows in his voice, which sounds innocent and guileless, perfect for the holiday season. There is a certain sense of reverence and wonder when Bono says “In Him was life. In Him, life was the light of man, for neither prehistoric swans nor trilobites, the Mesozoic birds, neanderthal, nor modern man had ever dreamt or seen what was our God” that gives me goosebumps, and I don’t even believe in God. Somehow, though, there’s something else in his voice…a worldliness, a knowing that is uncommon in one so young. It shows especially powerfully when Bono is reciting the lines about the car crash. Already, Bono has developed the skill of using his voice to make the listener feel the feeling that goes along with what he is saying. The other element that makes this recording so great is the background music, which consists of parts of two U2 B-sides from the War album — the instrumental track “Endless Deep” and the piano part from the U.S. remix of “New Year’s Day.” These two tracks lend a sense of mystery and thoughtfulness to the recording. I always feel like I’m entering a hazy mist when I listen to this track, and that feeling of supernatural uncanniness is due in large part to the backing music.
Of course, U2 has never played this track live on stage — they are a rock and roll band, not a spoken word outfit. Still, how cool would it be if Bono were to re-record the recitation sometime in the next few years, giving us something to compare the original with. Bono’s voice has changed a lot over the years — most of that innocence is gone from his voice now, but he still possesses that important ability to make us feel deep down inside whatever is going on in the lyrics that he is singing or reciting. I think that it would be fascinating to analyze a modern version of “Driving to Midnight Mass” with the 1984 version. If nothing else, it would give me something to write about for the holidays next year. Sincere and genuine thanks for reading, and happy holidays to all U2 fans around the world and their families.