This week, we’re continuing our twentieth anniversary series on Pop with a piece on what is probably the most overtly sexy song U2 has ever recorded, “If You Wear That Velvet Dress”.
Musically, “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” is very mellow and smooth with a sold, propulsive bass groove and some great, atmospheric guitar and keyboard. The drums are subtle and laid-back, and at times, especially at the beginning of the song, remind me of falling stardust. The whole package is hazy, almost hypnotic, and give the listener the feeling of being swept away on a gently rocking boat. It’s interesting, because on one hand, the song feels sleepy and lulling, but the driving, rhythmic bass and the textured guitar work, particularly in the song’s latter stage, keep things from getting too boring. There’s definitely a climax, but it feels more subdued than that found in most U2 songs.
The song is almost certainly about a sexual encounter , rather real or imagined, most likely between Bono and his wife, Ali. The lyrics speak a lot about the moon, comparing and contrasting the spellbinding light of that heavenly body to the sharper, clearer light of the sun. The mesmerizing light of the moon holds the singer in its sway, and coupled with the alluring beauty of his partner when she wears his favorite dress, drives him to lose control, and he allows himself to slip away on a tide of love and lust.
There are actually two versions of “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” – the album version, which most of this article is about, and a version recorded by Bono, backed by Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, five years later. The later version sounds like it was recorded in a smoky lounge somewhere, and Bono’s vocal is much wilder and impassioned, less restrained. The horns in this second version give a much more bombastic feeling, but somehow it all works. I love that Bono recorded this second version of this little known song, bringing an entirely different interpretation to this hidden gem.
“If You Wear That Velvet Dress” was performed live at nearly every show of the Pop*Mart Tour in 1997-98, but like much of the album the song is from, it hasn’t been played live since then. The song fit so perfectly with the mirror-ball theme of the first encore at the Pop*Mart shows that it’s hard to imagine it being played in any other circumstances, so I have to admit that I doubt that it will ever be performed again. That’s kind of a shame, because the song holds a somewhat unique place in U2’s catalog, with feelings and colors that aren’t expressed anywhere else in all of U2’s discography. I suppose that the ideas that are communicated in “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” aren’t as close to U2’s heart as some others, like justice and equality, so the song isn’t high on the band’s priority list, but I think it would be nice to hear it live again.