Roy Orbison was a spectacular vocalist and composer, but sometimes the power of his lyrics tend to get overlooked. In the beginning the “dum dum dums” and “doo be wahs” somewhat downplayed the lyrical heartbreak of Orbison’s finest songs. The transition from oddly fun and hummable sad songs to all out tragedy is as clear as could be on Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection, released in conjunction with what would have been Orbison’s 75th birthday year. Not only does the collection present Orbison’s singles chronologically, each song has been restored to mono mix for the first time since it was first released on 7″ vinyl.
Orbison is ceaselessly heralded, and for good reason; his influence is vast. Early Beatles songs such as “From Me to You” can be seen as cracks at giving more doo-wop inspired Orbison singles such as “Only the Lonely” and “I’m Hurtin'” a cheery and loving sheen. The operatic tragedy of Scott Walker — in his own right a terrifically influential figure — can be traced back to the sky is falling woe of “It’s Over”, And then there’s the use of Orbison’s songs in popular culture, such as “In Dreams” being manipulated to terrifying effect in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, or , on the opposite side of the spectrum, “Oh Pretty Woman” inspiring the title for the monolithic romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts. In the latter’s case, the loneliness of Orbison’s song is again downplayed and marketed as just an ode to an eye-catching lady. Using the song in such a way may not have compelled many people to investigate Orbison’s back-catalogue (Blue Velvet gets the credit for that), but it did put the man’s knack for hooks on full display. All one needs to hear is the opening riff to “Oh Pretty Woman” to ensure the song will be nestled in their brain for days on end.
The Monument Singles Collection comes in two incarnations — The Monument A-Sides, a no-frills presentation of those beautifully restored singles, and the collection proper, featuring B-sides to those singles and a DVD featuring nine songs performed by Orbison for a 1965 event called “The Monument Concert”, as well as the official video for “Oh Pretty Woman”. It has been widely chronicled that Orbison was not the most animated performer; he strummed his guitar and sang, allowing himself the sole gimmick of never performing without his black sunglasses. The Monument Concert is hardly revelatory, with the most entertaining moments being audience shots of young teenagers either looking bemused or awkwardly mouthing the lyrics to somewhat lighter songs such as “Dream Baby”. Still, there is something to be said for the way Orbison presented himself on-stage. He comes across as austere and dark, and — although his songs were far more complex than a surface listen suggests — his presence amplifies their underlying gloominess. No wonder the kids making up the audience look so uneasy.
I doubt I’m the only one who finds the best pop songs to be the ones that are either secretly or outspokenly miserable, with melodies and hooks that prevent the listener from initially comprehending the full despair of the lyrics. Roy Orbison made many of those songs possible. The Monument Collection is as perfect a reminder as any that if you’re a miserabilist yet haven’t let Roy Orbison into your life, then you should feel more sorry for yourself than usual.