Song 285: Roy Orbison, “She’s A Mystery To Me” (1989)

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It seems criminal to write about Roy Orbison and not write about his many classic songs from the fifties and sixties: “Only the Lonely,” “Crying,” and of course, “Oh Pretty Woman.” They’re amazing songs, and they’re superior to the one I’m writing about instead. But I recently rediscovered “She’s A Mystery To Me,” and, well, I really like it.

“She’s A Mystery To Me” was written by Bono and The Edge. You wouldn’t think a Roy Orbison song written by the two leaders of U2 would sound very good, but I think this song really works. Even though it came out in 1988, the track mostly lacks the era’s production trends: there are no tinny drums, no unnecessary electric guitar flourishes. It’s just Roy Orbison singing about a woman. Which is all anybody needs in a Roy Orbison song.

Dwight Yoakam reportedly once described Orbison’s voice as “the cry of an angel falling backward through an open window.” Bob Dylan said “he sings like a professional criminal.” It’s so covered in beauty and darkness that Bruce Springsteen called Orbison “the true master of the romantic apocalypse you dreaded.” It’s one of the best voices that ever was, and in one of the rare instances of Bono not calling attention to himself, he and The Edge wisely wrote to Orbison’s voice when they composed “She’s A Mystery To Me.” The song’s verses are simple and understated (a tone that suited Orbison just as well as operatic drama), but the chorus is a classic Roy Orbison melody: high and mighty.

According to Wikipedia, Bono said the recording process of this song was something to behold:

I stood beside him and sang with him. He didn’t seem to be singing. So I thought, ‘He’ll sing it the next take. He’s just reading the words.’ And then we went in to listen to the take, and there was this voice, which was the loudest whisper I’ve ever heard. He had been singing it. But he hardly moved his lips. And the voice was louder than the band in its own way. I don’t know how he did that. It was like sleight of hand.

The song’s record, Mystery Girl, was released in early 1989, a few months after Orbison’s death. I remember the day he died. I was eight years old, and my dad came into my room as I was getting ready for school. He said, “Roy Orbison died.” I didn’t say anything back, because I didn’t know what the right response was (and because I probably only had a vague idea of who Roy Orbison was), and a few seconds later, my dad left the room. I think he just needed to tell somebody that the voice was gone.

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