CCM Classic Blog

THE "BIG PICTURE" By Phillip Mayabb



Michael W. Smith is considered a CCM legend, and with good reason...he's earned it!  After coming to Nashville in the early 80s to become a writer, Michael worked his way up the ladder, going from writer, to playing keyboards on Amy Grant's juggernaut Age To Age album and tour, to finally becoming an artist himself, signing with Blanton & Harrell's Reunion Records in 1982.  The following year, Michael would release his debut LP, which was titled "Project", and instantly began receiving accolades. A set list with songs written mostly by Michael and his wife Deborah, Project is still regarded as one of the best debut albums in CCM history.  Songs like Great Is The Lord, Could He Be The Messiah, You Need A Saviour, and The Race Is On were played in heavy rotation on the radio, but it was the duet with Amy called Friends that made Michael W. Smith a household name.  The monster hit raised the bar, and put Michael's name at the top of the list of up and coming CCM artists to watch for.

Michael's fans anxiously awaited the follow up LP, and in 1984, they got their wish.  Michael W. Smith 2 was released to a lot of fanfare, but it became apparent rather quickly that his sophomore effort left a lot to be desired.  Although 2 had some songs that became radio hits, such as I Am Sure and Hosanna, and another vocal collaboration with Amy and husband Gary Chapman, MWS 2 just didn't garner the enthusiasm and excitement that Project had hinted at.  So, what's a guy to do?  Well, the first thing is to take some time off to regroup, which is what Michael did. He put in a fair amount of work on Amy's 1985 tour de force Unguarded, and he then went back to the drawing board to begin working on songs for his third LP.

Have you ever heard the old saying "third time's the charm"?  Whoever originated that phrase must have known what they were talking about, because in 1986, Michael W. Smith unleashed an amazing LP called The Big Picture, which we are featuring on Vinyl Revival this week.  Unlike both of its predecessors, Picture elevated Michael's game more than just to the next level...it sent him into the stratosphere! Hard hitting lyrics that dealt with subjects that some considered taboo were commonplace on this album.  Nothing was off limits - like suicide (The Last Letter), sexual abstinence (Old Enough To Know), and escapism (Lamu), were tackled aggressively, and not just lyrically.  The music on the album contained a heavier, progressive edge that no song on either of Michael's first two albums could even approach.  Added in among these songs were numbers that breached positive subjects for Christian youth of the day as well.  Songs like You're Alright eluded to maintaining a positive image of one's self, while Pursuit of The Dream (the song from which the album's title was derived) encouraged people of all ages to work hard to become what they wanted to be.  The album's first single, Rocketown, stands out to many fans, because it became the name of a Christian club that Michael would open in downtown Nashville that still stands to this day.  All in all, the lyrical and musical content of The Big Picture was polished and first class, from start to finish.  

The fact that Michael was a keyboardist played a major role in the development and execution of the album.  Synthetics of all kind were front and center on each of the album's songs, with the exception of the hidden track at the end of album (the song has no name listed in the credits).  The album was certainly one of the most technologically advanced recordings of the 80's, with much of the credit going to Michael and co-producer John Potoker, who had earned his stripes mostly by remixing some of mainstream pop's biggest hits of the 80's, working with artists like Hall & Oates, U2, Phil Collins, and The Rolling Stones.  In fact, an article in a 1986 issue of Contemporary Christian Magazine recalls an incidentthat occurred during the sessions for The Big Picture, when Michael answered the phone in the control room, and the caller on the other end of the line, with a distinct British accent asked "is John Potoka thah"?  When Michael informed the caller that Potoker was not available at the moment, he responded "tell 'im Mick called"! Michael had in fact, been speaking to the one and only Mick Jagger on the phone!!

Now, I will be straight up honest with all of you...I believe this album is Michael W. Smith's best, and certainly most adventurous album of his entire career.  It is listed on the website CCM's 500 Best Albums Of All Time at #99*, which certainly gives it some street cred.  However, for all the fantastic work that was done on this album, it is sadly, the poorest selling LP of Michael's 35 year recording career.  The problem is twofold...first, most fans, and certainly CCM radio were simply NOT ready for some of the lyrical content of this record, it's that simple.  Most Christians at that time just didn't want to talk about subjects that are approached on regular basis now, and that hurt the amount of airplay that the songs received. Second, NOBODY was expecting a guy like Michael W, Smith to ever write and play the kind of aggressive power pop music that permeated this LP from start to finish.  I had friends who liked Smitty, but hated this album, all because it didn't sound anything like his first two, and when you add these things together, it does not bode well for history's view of this album.  Just to prove my point, I submit exhibit A...when Michael released his fourth album, 1988's "I 2 (Eye)", he completely abandoned the musical and lyrical direction of The Big Picture, and went back to the more "comfortable" and commercial approach.

Most of you will either love or hate this recording...there really isn't much middle ground to be had.  As you listen to it in 2018, some 32 years after its initial release, you will see very quickly that the music is VERY dated.  If you cannot tell this came out in the mid 80s, you need to check your musical skills.  That notwithstanding, I challenge ANYBODY to find another album by a Christian artist on a Christian record label from 1986 that can match The Big Picture sonically. If you have one in mind, let me know in the comments, and we'll have a discussion, but I encourage you not to waste your time.  Even the two biggest CCM classics from 1985, Amy Grant's Unguarded and Russ Taff's Medals, sound nothing like this LP, but they sold well, and had several radio hits, and are still considered iconic albums today.  In my opinion, The Big Picture should be right there too, but I doubt that it will ever receive the love and respect it should have been given, both then, and now.

TRACKLIST:

1. Lamu

2. Wired For Sound

3. Old Enough To Know

4. Pursuit Of The Dream

5. Rocketown

6. Voices

7. The Last Letter

8. Goin' Through The Motions

9. Tearin' Down The Wall (instrumental)

10. You're Alright

11. Piano Outro (hidden track)

* taken from  https://ccms500bestalbums.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/99-the-big-picture-michael-w-smith/



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