Utah-based electro-new wave revivalists Neon Trees rode their breakthrough single, 2009’s “Animal,” to an impressive wave of success. Similar stylistically to the Killers (for whom Neon Trees opened) with perhaps a bit more manic energy, Neon Trees’ sound was perfect for a period in which the pop charts were blitzed with ‘80s-inspired electronica.
They scored a Top 10 hit in 2011 with the upbeat dance/pop “Everybody Talks” and their second album “Picture Show” made the Top 20.
Meanwhile, things were changing for lead vocalist Tyler Glenn. Neon Trees were all members of the Mormon Church, which holds a decidedly dim view on homosexuality. Glenn came out publicly as gay in April 2014, just two weeks prior to the release of the band’s all-important third album “Pop Psychology” (which ultimately sold far fewer copies than the band’s first two releases). Glenn’s announcement predictably caused a rift among fans, and it also evidently fractured Glenn’s family and Neon Trees itself.
According to a July 21, 2016 piece in Billboard Magazine, Glenn’s brother and the still-practicing Mormon members of Neon Trees were, at least as of the time of that interview, no longer on speaking terms with the singer. Another reminder, as if we needed one, of the steep price some individuals are forced to pay to be who they truly are as a person and an artist.
The good news for Glenn is that his first solo album, “Excommunication,” is as electrifying and upbeat as anything Neon Trees might have produced and boasts the added poignancy of exploring Glenn literally losing his religion. He addresses this trauma with piercing directness on songs like “G.D.M.M.L. GIRLS (God Didn’t Make Me Like Girls),” an explicit and defiant embrace of his sexuality in the face of superstitious rejection. Glenn pushes back against the condescending term “tolerated” and stands up proudly for exactly who he is.
Glenn has a well-developed sense of caustic sarcasm, which he liberally sprinkles through the album’s nakedly confessional lyrics. He explores the doubt, confusion, rejection and ultimate determination and yearning for freedom that Glenn experienced while going through such a pivotal period in his life. This was a real change in personal spirituality for Glenn. He was a devout Mormon, a true believer and yet he knew he had same-sex attraction from an early age.
That long simmering sense of shame and confusion finally gave way to acceptance, defiance and affirmation that he has every right to be the person he should be and he is in no way lesser than those who choose to follow a mythology that they believe elevates them to a spiritual and moral superiority to their fellow humans. He explores these concepts with a pulsing modern pop energy, an album that’s simultaneously fun and deeply meaningful. On songs like the kinetic “Trash,” Glenn skewers the self-righteous with their own hypocrisy, derisively sneering “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
At times, like on the retro groove “Shameless” and the manic new wave thriller “First Vision,” Jake Shears and Scissor Sisters seem to be an obvious influence on Glenn’s sound, and that’s not a bad thing. Glenn doesn’t stray too far from the general vibe he helped cultivate with Neon Trees, but “Excommunication” is ear candy more daring and sonically adventurous than any of his past work. He also shows himself once again to be a first-rate vocalist, especially on the dramatic ballad “Midnight.”
The album closes with “Devil,” a cunning mix of heavy electronic pop with gospel influences and the recurring hook “I found myself when I lost my faith” that is ultimately the album’s defining theme. Glenn’s solo debut finds himself reveling not only in his ability to finally, without reservation, come to terms with his true self, but in his ability to finally shrug off those who can’t accept it. “Don’t pray for me, don’t pray for me, no,” he sings derisively.
“Excommunication” is not only a declaration of self, it’s a road-map for those who may be where Glenn was several years ago, filled with fear, doubt, confusion and an absence of self-worth. This album is exactly the kind of testimony they need to hear.