The late Roy Orbison’s first album of all-new material in ten years, Mystery Girl cloaks the epic sweep and grandeur of his classic sound in meticulous, modern production — the album encapsulates everything that made Orbison great, and for that reason it makes a fitting valedictory.
There are ten songs and six producers on this record, but the sound is miraculously unified. Orbison’s stunning voice and unique persona are never overwhelmed by the stellar supporting cast, which includes three-quarters of the other Traveling Wilburys (George Harrison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne), three Heartbreakers, Mitchell Froom, T Bone Burnett, Jim Keltner and members of Fleetwood Mac.
Orbison’s spine-tingling bel-canto swells and swoops heighten the drama of even the most straightforward tune, from rockers like “You Got It” and “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You” to the schmaltzy balladry of “A Love So Beautiful.” One of the best tracks on the record is “She’s a Mystery to Me,” written by Bono and the Edge and produced by Bono. Not surprisingly, the song has a vaguely U2-ish sound, and Orbison’s phrasing is even a little like Bono’s, but the way he sings the chorus — in a register dramatically higher than the verse — is pure Orbison.
The words lonely, dream and blue pop up as often as they ever did, yet Orbison all but renounces dreams in “In the Real World,” and he mocks the self-pitying loneliness that pervades his remarkable oeuvre in “The Only One,” which owes its ambling Memphis groove to veteran Stax-Volt guitarist and arranger Steve Cropper. With rare irony Orbison sings, “You’re the only one with a broken heart/The only one who is falling apart/The only one in a crowded room.”
Of course, Orbison’s palette did tend toward shades of blue, and the guest writers cater to this as if each were striving to write the quintessential Roy Orbison song. They largely succeed, but the writing combines with the high-tech production to give Mystery Girl a bit of the same feeling of frozen genius as Brian Wilson’s recent solo comeback. Besides Bono’s contribution, only Elvis Costello’s expands the Big O’s range; “The Comedians” is yet another tale of lost love, but with an odd spin that suits Orbison surprisingly well.
Ethereal and magnificent, “In the Real World” seems to foreshadow the loss of Orbison himself. In the dreams that were his songs, Roy Orbison’s voice will live forever. “But in the real world,” he sings, “we must say real goodbyes/No matter if the love will live/Will never die.”