The songwriting great still casts an impressive shadow across pop.
Jaime Gill 2011
The most common mistake made about Roy Orbison is to confuse his life with his music. While the cataclysmic series of personal horrors he endured (the death of his wife in a motorcycle accident, the later house fire that stole two sons) have added even more wrenching depth to his heartbreak masterpieces, they were written earlier: Orbison was pop's greatest tragedian long before his life caught up with his art. Another mistake is to focus solely on that voice - soaring, versatile and sublimely moving though it is - and forget what an extraordinary songwriter he was.
The Monument Singles Collection should go some way towards correcting that, thanks to an expert remastering which makes the songs ring out more clearly than they have in decades. While the B side disc is intriguing but patchy, and the live DVD merely reminds us that Orbison poured all his charisma into his songs, the collection of A sides is a tour de force that reminds us of what a vast musical figure Orbison was, and how deep a shadow he still casts. Put simply, without Orbison it would be difficult to imagine a McCartney, Springsteen or Morrissey.
It was at Monument, Nashville that Orbison scored his first hit in 1960, after five years of songwriting struggle: Elvis Presley rejected Only the Lonely, a decision he later regretted. Little wonder: it would be a gorgeous puppy dog pop song in anyone’s hands, but Orbison’s magisterial vocal makes it a classic. Yet within a year he had surpassed it, writing two of the finest songs in the pop canon. Running Scared is a luscious two-minute melodrama which anticipates Spector’s Wall of Sound and ends triumphantly with Orbison’s fierce, sustained wail. Crying somehow bests it, Orbison magically teasing the song from moody melancholy into utter desolation, marked by that devastating falsetto.
Orbison could be playful, too. The yodelling, gleeful Working for the Man is a double-edged paean to hard-nosed capitalism, while on his biggest hit – Oh, Pretty Woman – Orbison has so firmly established his loser-in-love persona that the surprise happy ending is almost mockingly wry (Morrissey would repeat the trick 20 years later). But it is in the ballads where Orbison’s true emotional genius is felt, from the dreamy doldrums of Blue Bayou to the knee-to-the-heart impact of It’s Over. On these songs his legend is secured.