Yes, I’ve been on a bit of a Roy Orbison kick lately. Coincidentally, I’ve just read about the 25th anniversary re-release of his 1989 masterpiece and return to solo material in the months shortly before his untimely death, Mystery Girl. It looks like there are some goodies involved with the new package, but I’m not sure they’re enough to make me double up on my own copy of the original (a Virgin Records cassette). But anyone that still owns tapes like I do will hear them break down over time, so who knows? While I debate the merits of an upgrade, let’s take a trip back in time to check out the reason for the reissue in the first place – this is an outstanding album.
Established artists were tripping over each other to line up gigs with the newly energized Orbison. Several of them managed to hop on board the Mystery Girl sessions, which had a number of different folks sitting in the producer’s chair and Roy’s wife, Barbara serving as the Executive Producer. No matter whose turn it was to record their contribution, everyone stepped forward with the intent of honoring their hero while crafting music that was not drastically dissimilar from the sounds that made him famous. Case in point: the opening track and big Top 40 hit, “You Got It” was penned by Roy in collaboration with ELO leader and fellow Traveling Wilbury, Jeff Lynne and another Wilbury alumnus, Tom Petty. So 3/5 of the Wilburys on guitars and vocals, with Lynne playing nearly every other instrument, was enough to ratchet up another win with radio listeners. With Orbison wandering purposefully up and down his considerable register, the song fell right in line with Orbison’s catalog and included nods to some of his dramatically-charged weepers from the ‘60s.
Later into the side, the then-current guitarists from Fleetwood Mac, Billy Burnette and Rick Vito, plugged in for a run through Burnette’s “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You”, with the differently-spelled T Bone Burnett at the controls. With another T Bone, Wolk this time, on bass and Mickey Curry on drums, Burnette and Orbison go off on a rockabilly tangent, leaving a whole lot of “sha-la-la-la”s behind them in the vocal mix. Lynne later returns to the booth to capture the sweeping showcase for Orbison’s amazing tenor, “A Love So Beautiful.” Anyone familiar with some of the extravagant synthesizer and string arrangements Lynne created with ELO (the album, Out Of The Blue, in particular comes to mind) won’t feel too out of place when hearing this one. It’s pretty much devoid of anything you might call “rock and roll”, but Roy’s old pal and (yet another) Wilburys member, George Harrison strums some wonderful acoustic guitar in support to make up for it.
Two tracks on Side 2 are bound to make the biggest impression on listeners, however. The opener, “She’s A Mystery To Me,” the title track of sorts, is also a bit of an experiment for longtime Orbison fans, Bono and The Edge from U2. While the Irishmen co-wrote the song together, The Edge was nowhere near the studio. Instead, it’s Bono himself at the controls, and only he and Orbison playing guitars! With then-Heartbreakers Howie Epstein on bass and Benmont Tench on piano and string arrangement, and ably backed by session veteran and Wilburys drummer Jim Keltner at the skins, it’s a track that takes us in some unexpected directions – all of them revealing. There’s a bit of gloom hanging in the air that might have crept in from David Lynch’s use of “In Dreams” in his film, Blue Velvet, but that darkness works a magic spell on us, drawing us in closer, and then steaming up the windshield in front of us. My hope was that we’d hear Roy put his voice to use in situations similar to this on future recordings, freeing him up from an occasionally stifling style developed in decades past to update and modernize his music.
Next up is another stunner – Roy’s reading of Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians.” If ever a song was written with a specific singer and delivery in mind, it’s this one. Costello’s homage to “Running Scared” is complete with teenage drama and the mildly acidic observations of someone becoming sick of hanging with the same old crowd of idiots. The contrast between the flashing lights of the song’s carnival setting and the heartbreak of the song’s protagonist are classic Orbison as is his powerful delivery at the song’s close. The record would definitely not feel complete without this song’s inclusion. T Bone Burnett whistled up the hired hands in the guise of David Rhodes, Mitchell Froom, Jerry Scheff, Keltner again, and the ubiquitous Mike Utley of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band arranging strings. The song was carefully crafted by disciplined session players and Burnett and Orbison could have rested on their laurels had this been the only song they’d completed together. Phenomenal!
Those are really the highlights of Mystery Girl; more than enough to interest me into making a purchase back in the day. So, what’s the deal with the reissue? As I understand it, Roy’s sons have actually cobbled together a new song from their dad through the wonders of studio technology. So, there’s that. The package also includes demo versions of most of the record’s tracks, so this is always a lure that pulls in those that must leave no holes in their collections. But what actually interests me more is a bonus DVD which includes a documentary on the making of Mystery Girl and a handful of promo videos for the singles released from the album. There’s so little archival footage of Orbison available to the public that these inclusions make it feel more like Sony’s having an appropriate celebration. Join in if you missed out on this record the first time around, or bust out your old copy like I did for some fond memories of a sadly missed legend.