The expanded 25th-anniversary edition of Roy Orbison‘s Mystery Girl (Legacy Recordings) is a fitting tribute of sorts to the late singer, as the set plays much like his most beloved material. It is sweeping and stirring, with more than a tinge of heartache and moments that persistently leave one in awe of that elegantly aching voice.
The original album came long after Orbison’s string of early 1960s hits (such as “Only the Lonely,” “Crying” and “Oh, Pretty Woman”) as he staged a remarkable yet ultimately bittersweet comeback in the late ’80s with a well-received TV concert (1988’s Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night), a high-profile hit album with the star-studded Traveling Wilburys (1988’s Vol. I) and then Mystery Girl, which was released in February 1989, two months after he died of a heart attack at 52. Propelled by the hit single “You Got It,” Mystery Girl would reach the Top 5 of the Billboard 200 and climb the pop-albums chart at the same time as the Wilburys’ debut. If it seemed like more than a career resurgence for Orbison, maybe it’s because it also served as an unshakeable reminder of the singer’s singular talent.
Similarly, 25 years later, there is now another reminder in the form of the reissue of Mystery Girl, an impressive package featuring bonus tracks, demo versions and (in the deluxe version) an hourlong making-of-the-album documentary, Mystery Girl: Unvraveled, directed by Orbison’s son Alex (he and brothers Roy and Wesley — billed as “Roy’s Boys” — produced the film). Strong as the album is in expanded form, the documentary threatens to outshine it, and that’s saying something because Mystery Girl is a well-crafted album that found Orbison at the top of his game — something his fellow musicians marveled at. “The man had no strain or stress in his voice at any time,” says session drummer Jim Keltner.
Mystery Girl: Unraveled is a heartfelt look back at the recording of the album, full of colorful insights shared by his family and many of the famous fans who collaborated with Orbison on the project, such as Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Mike Campbell, Bono and Steve Cropper, who all had a hand in writing, arranging, producing and/or performing the material. There is also plenty of grainy video footage of Orbison and some of those principals recording or working out songs in Campbell’s garage studio, scenes that suggest the sessions were quite loose and that the record was a blast to make.
Along the way, the viewer gets an anecdotal, track-by-track synopsis of Mystery Girl‘s 10 tunes and how they were composed or recorded, with detailed recollections, or sometimes just heartfelt remembrances of Orbison, from those involved. One-time Fleetwood Mac member Billy Burnette talks of being thrilled that Orbison recorded his co-write “(All I Can Do Is) Dream You,” and the rockabilly-flavored track sounds like vintage Orbison from the first note of his breezy vocals. Lynne recalls Orbison nailing the impassioned high notes on “A Love So Beautiful” in one take, stunning those lucky enough to be on hand in the studio. It was a performance that also must have moved the singer himself; Lynne relates that while they listened to a playback of the track in the control room, he turned around to find Orbison had tears rolling down his cheeks.
Then there is the almost too-good-to-be-true tale of the disc’s quasi-title track, “She’s a Mystery to Me,” which Bono says he hastily wrote after a long night of listening to Orbison’s classic “In Dreams” the night before a U2 gig in London, only to have Orbison surprisingly, and quite conveniently, show up after the concert and ask whether the band might have a spare song for him to record. Better still is Petty’s memory of excitedly watching through the studio glass as Orbison, Bono and Keltner worked out the arrangement in the studio (the demo version is included on the expanded CD), huddled together in stripped-down fashion.
Still, the real kicker comes after the credits roll: bonus footage of the Orbison sons and family friend John Carter Cash recording “The Way Is Love,” playing to a tape of Roy’s rough vocal on a leftover track from the Mystery Girl era. It’s fitting closure both for the film and the three sons, who treasure it as a chance to finally collaborate with their dad (it’s another bonus track on the CD).
A heavy theme throughout the documentary is that Mystery Girl served as a worthy exclamation point on Orbison’s career; that while, sadly, it would mark his final album and turn in the spotlight, his loved ones and friends remain proud that he went out having just recorded a master work. Knowing he would only live a short time after the album’s release makes it a bit eerie to view a snippet of footage that shows the singer sitting in the studio, speaking to someone off camera about the importance of this music being good enough “to hold up in 20 years.”
A quarter-century later, Mystery Girl more than holds up. With a beefed-up rerelease and moving film, Roy’s Boys have given the world a loving remembrance of, and a fine tribute to, the man himself.
— By George Henn