Roy Orbison ‘Mystery Girl’ Album Review

Roy Orbison’s posthumous masterwork Mystery Girl stands the test of time from beginning to end: the songs are all about heartbreak, desire and dreams. The sonics are first-rate and Roy’s voice is as dynamic and powerful as ever.

The thing people don’t talk about enough as far as I’m concerned is how innovative this music was, how radical in terms of its songwriting. As I become more interested in songwriting, you hit a wall where Roy Orbison is standing.” ~ Bono

This month marks the 26th anniversary of Roy’s death; the posthumous release of Mystery Girl: the album went to number 5 on the US Billboard charts and to number 2 on the UK charts.

Roy Orbison had suddenly passed away in December, 1988 from a heart attack, in the midst of a career revival unlike that of any other pop artist from the 1960s. His resurgence had begun with his 1987 induction into the Rock and Hall Hall of Fame, with a laudatory speech by Bruce Springsteen, who confessed that Roy’s music had been a deep inspiration to him. That, he said, was how he tried to sing when he made Born To Run.

That same year T-Bone Burnett produced the live performance of Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night, that showcased Roy singing with Bruce, with Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and many others. Among them: k.d. lang, with whom Roy recorded a 1988 Grammy-winning recreation of his famous song “Crying”. Then Roy began working with Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and George Harrison in a collaboration that became The Traveling Wilburys. That album and Mystery Girl both surged into the Top 5 in early 1989, and Roy became the first since Elvis to have two top posthumous recordings.

“With Roy, you didn’t know if you were listening to mariachi or opera. He kept you on your toes. With him, it was all about fat and blood. He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop. After “Ooby Dooby” he was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal … his voice could jar a corpse, always leave you muttering to yourself something like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it’. ~  Bob Dylan

“He made emotion fashionable, that it was alright to talk about and sing about very emotional things. For men to sing about very emotional things… before that no one would do it.” -Robin Gibb.

Roy’s previous album of original material, Laminar Flow, was almost a decade old, and had been a spectacular misjudgment with its uncertain treading in disco waters – not at all what Roy’s audience had grown to expect from him. It dropped from sight quickly after release and is scarcely found today. This time around, with Mystery Girl, he got it right, working with T-Bone Burnett, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and many more.

The album takes its title from the chorus of a song that Bono wrote for Roy, “She’s A Mystery To Me”. And here’s the thing: after having left Monument Records for MGM for a million dollar advance in the mid ’60s, Roy was never properly recorded again until this album. The magic that Monument producer Fred Foster and engineer Bill Porter achieved with all the great Orbison singles was never captured at MGM. Roy’s career floundered for decades simply because that great voice of his required spectacular sound and great orchestration – things that Burnett and Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra) understood perfectly. Listen to Mystery Girl today: the sonics are first-rate, the engineering approaching perfection, and Roy’s voice is as dynamic and as powerful as ever.

Standout tracks on the album: well, there are only a dozen or so, mostly concerned with heartbreak, desire and dreams, Roy’s trademark subjects. This is one record that stands the test of time from beginning to end. Listen closely, though, to the power of the opener ” Your Got It” and “A Love So Beautiful”, both produced by Jeff Lynne (he never achieved this degree of emotional sincerity in ELO) and the aching vulnerability in final track, “Careless Heart” produced by Roy and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

“California Blue” is a lovely updating of “Blue Bayou” in tone, style and execution, while “The Only One” demonstrates Roy’s collaboration with his son Wesley, who recently completed his own album Spread Your Wings. Wes sounds remarkably like his father and the album is decent, but lacks Roy’s sense of emotional drama.

By the way, Roy’s greater success in the UK charts with Mystery Girl should have surprised no one, for Roy was always a bigger star in Europe than he was in America. Ask Macca or Ringo, for whom Roy famously opened in the mid ’60s when The Beatles were at their peak. A couple of days into the tour they called Roy aside and requested that they trade concert placement and that The Beatles open for him. No one, they said, can follow Roy Orbison.