Tyler Glenn's New Album Is a Goodbye Letter to the Mormon Church
We talked with the Neon Trees frontman about his new album, <i>Excommunication.</i>
Photo by Meredith Truax
"My first iced coffee was this year," says musician Tyler Glenn over the phone, snickering at the thought. "It's hilarious that I used to associate that as sinful."
In 2014, Glenn—best known as the lead singer of platinum-selling pop rock band Neon Trees—came out publicly in Rolling Stone. As he was continuing to identify as a Mormon, it made the then 30-year-old an instant lightning rod within the national debate about the Church of Latter-day Saints and its long-standing opposition to LGBTQ sexualities. A year later, however, Glenn's balancing act as a gay Mormon began to falter when the Church of Latter Day Saints issued new doctrines forbidding the children of same-sex couples from being baptized until they were legal adults, even requiring them to then renounce same-sex relationships. Today, nearly a year since those controversial policies were announced, Glenn is back with his solo debut album, Excommunication—a collection of electro-rock tunes that chronicle both the singer's loss of faith and his sexual liberation.
"I wanted people to feel the journey that I've been on," he says. "Where the album starts is very much me last year, when I started to look at and question things that I grew up believing. At the same time, I found out my boyfriend had cheated on me. So, making the album was this weird culmination of analyzing my life."
That one-two punch of rejection is keenly felt throughout the record; the line "I lost the Lord then I lost you" from Glenn's song "Gods + Monsters" encapsulates the entire work's emotional thrust. At every turn, listeners encounter either the specter of God or the specter of a longed-for lover, returning the listener to crises of faith that they may have long since resolved. In a taboo intermingling of faith and queer lust, God and romance become nearly interchangeable.
By conflating the figure of God with the figure of a lover on Excommunication, Glenn circumnavigates doctrine and instead offers audiences sanctification on the dance floor, their souls elevated through songs of religious and romantic worship.
"Sometimes I'm talking to God, but a lot of times I'm talking to my ex throughout the record. The title Excommunication is a play on words, if you look at it that way," he mused, "religious excommunication, as well as communicating with my ex."
For LGBTQ Mormons, Excommunication may very well be the right album at the right time: Suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah youth aged 11 to 17, and a recent study found that "youth suicides are twice as high in states with the highest levels of Mormon residents compared to states with the lowest levels of Mormon residents." It's currently impossible to know precisely how many of Utah's young suicide victims identified as LGBTQ because Utah's Department of Health (DOH) has so far refused to study the link between sexuality and suicide, and police investigations of death rarely look into the deceased's sexual orientation. Utah's DOH did point out, however, that research by the Family Acceptance Project, a research and policy initiative, showed that queer youth facing rejection at home are at an "exceptional" risk for suicide—and rejection epitomizes the Church of Latter-day Saint's attitude toward queerness.
"The Mormon Church doesn't even acknowledge homosexuality," Glenn explains. "Early this year, an elder of the church made the proclamation that there are no homosexuals in the church. The doctrine is taught that it's a challenge that you can overcome—that homosexuality is a thing you can reverse, change, or repair."
Facing the crisis of LGBTQ Mormon suicides, Glenn's songs serve as a much-needed kind of sermon themselves: a witnessing of the plight of LGBTQ Mormons, but also a celebration of their capacity to have both sexual freedom and religious commitment.
For every Mormon youth living in a home that makes a practice out of rejecting their identity, Excommunication represents proof that gay people can survive being raised Mormon, that one can come out on the other side of faith intact and in control of their identity. Of course, the process of getting to this other side is no easy ride. Describing his sudden loss of faith, Glenn says that "initially, it was terrifying; I felt like the rug had been pulled from under me. How was this God that I felt like I had a relationship with, that I had a prayerful communication with—how could he tell the leaders of the church to put out this new doctrine against gay people?" With the church's new policies, he could no longer equivocate about the potential for harmonious relations between the two communities; it became a question of being Mormon or gay.
Yet where the church failed to create a space for queer Mormons, Excommunication succeeds. Despite its title and origin, the album is, in fact, a place for communication with or about the divine, as evinced by numerous tracks where the singer calls out to God or God's absence. He may claim "you've got me giving up on Jesus" on "Waiting Around," but by the album's end, he claims, "I think I still believe in Jesus / He's a friend when I choose to pray" on album standout "Devil." The often tortured relationship between the singer and his faith facilitates a sonic space of solidarity for queer Mormon youth—home for the emotionally homeless.
"I definitely have no interest in replacing my former religion with a new religion," he says of his own current beliefs. "In the Mormon Church, the narrative is that you know the church is true; it's all this I know, I know, I know. For me, it's so refreshing to not know—there's a liberation in not knowing right now."
It's ironic, then, that Tyler Glenn is now an icon for gay Mormonism, despite having radically turned away from the church's teachings—but he is still quick to provide earnest words of encouragement to his former community.
"Life gets so fucking fun when you unwire the shame and guilt about who you are and are able to tap into your core," he says, his voice suddenly becoming more animated. "There's so much strength and power already in you, and that's something I wish I had known, because I always looked to something else."
When I bring up the statistical link between large Mormon populations and youth suicide, Glenn shows a surprisingly optimistic attitude about the church he gave up on: "There's always hope. I think more and more Mormons are realizing the system is fucked up and has flaws. That was exemplified by the outpouring of sadness and frustration that came after that policy [against same-sex couples.] I won't go back to the church, but I hope that they change the policies for those who need it."
For now, Glenn says he has simple goals for his music: "Hopefully, the record represents something of hope for gay Mormons. I see myself as an example of it never being too late to have this paradigm shift, never too late to welcome certain enlightenment."
Enlightenment after indoctrination may seem like a daunting prospect, but as Glenn sings in "Black Light," there is pleasure to be found in "loving life and excommunication."
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