In 1990, Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman were arguably the only two artists who could legitimately compete for being called the genre's most successful male vocalist. Even though the '80s influence was starting to fade, it was still a dominating force in music. A new decade's sound was only just beginning to find its footing. For Michael W. Smith (affectionately known as "Smitty" to many of his fans) in particular, 1990 found him riding the momentum of several huge albums. And, the release of Go West Young Man would only drive that momentum even further.
1990: The Sounds of the Age
This is definitely an album of its era. With a big chamber pop sound, '80s synths, and enough cheese to restock an Italian restaurant, Go West Young Man is a quintessential hallmark of sounds from the '80s and early '90s.
The title track is a power anthem with a catchy singalong-chanted beat for a bridge. They are ballads, such as "Cross My Heart," that will make your spirit soar. There are reflective personal numbers, such as the song Michael wrote for his daughter, "Emily." There are also infectiously groovy numbers like "Love Crusade."
Nearly every song must have a guitar solo (this was an important 1990s rule). Smitty shedded some of the more overt guitar rock from his previous albums on Go West Young Man. But, there is still a definite rock framework to this whole production.
Fans get a taste of Smitty's softer side with his signature worship achievement, "Agnus Dei." With a children's choir backing him on vocals, this song is a taste of the cinematic sound he employs on his Christmas collections.
Finding a Place in This World
With this album, Smitty found a power ballad that would yield some of his biggest commercial success yet. I speak of his legendary hit, "Place in this World." Every note of this song is iconic, dripping with nostalgia and classic goodness. The gentle piano hook introducing the song is signature Smitty. The rousing guitar solo and the singable chorus make for a winning combination. And, the themes of youth searching for meaning in life has remained a relevant struggle for this generation, as it was for our parents' generation.
This song netted Smitty a massive crossover hit. While it was no surprise to see a Smitty single hit number one on the Christian music charts in 1990, few could predict just how big this song would be on mainstream charts. It hit the top five on Billboard's mainstream Adult Contemporary charts, and on several other mainstream charts as well.
Looking from 2020's eyes, having a hit single in mainstream music isn't quite as uncommon for a Christian artist as it once was. This was a massive achievement in 1990. This success cemented "Place in this World" as one of the most important and noteworthy songs in the Christian music canon.
The Best Yet to Come
Many music fans and artists will debate which era of Smitty is his golden age. Some may argue the early albums of the 1980s had Smitty at his most raw. Others may prefer the massive commercial hits that would populate Christian radio throughout the coming decade.
Maybe it's the worship music Smitty would begin to produce at an even greater clip at the turn of the millennium. Whatever one's feelings on Smitty's magnum opus, one cannot deny that this album served as a sort of turning point in Smitty's career. It's the point that skyrocketed him into the mainstream.
Far from the experimental novelty of his early music, Smitty was making a big play to bring his message to those who may not listen to Christian radio. And, the success of this move would deliver on several of his subsequent hits. One of the shocking facts for me was, despite how big and iconic "Place in this World" was, this album didn't seem to have that many of Smitty's most notable recordings.
Certainly, the title track is among the greatest of Smitty classics. Also, "Agnus Dei" would go on later to become a worship staple. But, most of the album's songs—outside of one or two—feel like "deeper cuts" in the Smitty catalogue. To me, this seems odd for a platinum album that's yielded several successful singles.
The African children's choir adds a catchy flavor to "Seed to Sow." And, "How Long Will Be Too Long" has a foot-tapping gospel flare. And, "For You" is definitely a singable piece of pop goodness that's achieved respectable crossover success in its own right. But, as previously mentioned, when looking back at the body of Smitty's work as a whole, most of these songs seem to sit in the shadow of the album's most successful hit, as well as hits from future albums.
For the remainder of the decade, Smitty would churn out some of his most commercially successful music yet, racking up enough classics to fill several greatest hits compilations. As such, many listeners may be surprised at just how few of those hits are actually contained on this album.
Nevertheless, this album's contribution to Smitty's success is undeniable, and the legacy of its signature hit is unmistakable. As the album turns a grand three-decades-old this year, now is a great time to revisit one of the great turning points in the career of a true Christian music legend.
J.J. Francesco is a longtime contributor to the NRT Staff. He's published the novel 'Because of Austin' and regularly seeks new ways to engage faith, life, and community.
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