On Wednesday evening (Nov. 13), Neon Trees returned with “Used To Like,” a soaring pop-rock anthem that serves as the lead single for their first album in more than five years. On its face, “Used To Like” sounds like a classic Neon Trees record, with syncopated guitars, propulsive drums and an ’80s-inspired sheen. However, its lyrics are a far cry from the power-pop flirtations that filled the act’s early hits.
Instead, the new single finds frontman Tyler Glenn grasping at the last vestiges of a relationship gone sour. “Oh honey/ Now you’re sayin’ I’m actin’ crazy/ And I don’t see what you see/ Get back to what you used to like about me/ Back to what you used to like about me,” he pleads to his former flame, his wail of a voice reaching for the rafters as it jumps an octave on the track’s propulsive chorus.
“There’s a common thread in the last three or four years,” Glenn tells Billboard of the music, much of which was directly inspired by a toxic relationship in his own life over that same time period. “There was a person that was kind of a friend and then it escalated into a very, like, emotionally co-dependent thing. And I knew it was always toxic for me but I was literally addicted to that person, and I think that spurred on a lot of the material on this album.”
Inflamed by Glenn’s increasing desperation to right the proverbial ship even as it circles the drain, the new single kicks off the narrative arc of all the music that’s set to follow, even if the relationship at its center doesn’t necessarily get a happy ending.
“It’s that last-ditch effort of, like, ‘Can’t we just get back to that initial thing that we’re obsessed about with each other?’” the 35-year-old says. “And I think that’s really resonant to a lot of people universally where there’s that bliss period in relationships and friendships…It’s just kind of a reminder there was a really great time and a nostalgic time, and maybe if we go to the extremes and go to the lengths to get back there it can happen. But I think ultimately it never does.”
Relationship aside, the years since Neon Trees’ last LP, 2014’s Pop Psychology, included major creative and personal growth for Glenn. In 2016, he released his debut solo album, Excommunication, a “self-therapeutic,” soul-baring record that detailed his coming-out process and subsequent split from the Mormon Church. The following year, he helped Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds launch Loveloud, an annual music festival held for Utah’s at-risk LGBTQ youth, and played a supporting role in Believer, the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary that chronicled the festival’s creation. Meanwhile, his band mates (guitarist Chris Allen, bassist Branden Campbell and drummer Elaine Bradley) used the time away from the spotlight to raise families and dabble in other musical projects.
“I loved my band at the time,” Glenn says, “but I think there was a bit of me just trying to figure out where I was, and where my voice was, and what I wanted to speak on…The cool thing is, I think everyone needed a bit of space anyways.”
While Glenn and his band mates kept in contact, casually writing music for an eventual fourth record, a stint in Broadway’s Kinky Boots in the summer of 2018 gave the frontman the creative spark he needed to return his focus fully to Neon Trees.
“It just kind of came at a perfect time,” he says of the opportunity to step into the musical’s sparkly, high-heeled boots. “And that show is just such an injection of positivity. It just really was a nice, perfect distraction, creatively…’Cause, like, I wasn’t in Utah and I wasn’t just playing shows with the band. I had a bit of perspective.”
Rather than return home to Utah, Glenn took that new perspective to Los Angeles, where he and the band wrote and recorded the bulk of the upcoming record — an experience that marks the first time Glenn has been entirely, publicly out as a gay artist from the beginning stages of an album cycle.
“Pop Psychology was marketed, or kind of pushed, on the story about me coming out,” he says. “But I was still very much in the closet when I was writing that record. I didn’t even come out to my producer until, like, the end when we were mixing. And then when I wrote my solo record, I had just left Mormonism. I think when you come out as a gay Mormon — and I never want to put myself in anyone else’s experience — but I’ve found that it wasn’t a full life still. I wasn’t really able to fully even get to know myself or what I like or feel open.”
No longer constrained by his former religion’s belief system, Glenn says he’s never felt more free. “There’s real pain and sadness that you have to get through,” he explains of his decision to cut ties with Mormonism, “but, like, everyone describes it as, ‘you’ll be lost when you leave,’ and I have only felt more in my body and more present and more, like, excited to explore life, where before it felt kinda like limited and shameful.”
That sense of freedom has injected itself back into Neon Trees’ new music, imbuing Glenn’s lyrics with the kind of honesty that would’ve seemed impossible back when he was writing songs from inside the closet. “I feel no chains,” he says, “and I’ve not felt bound to anything, where I have to edit or self-edit, where I feel like a lot of that happened in those records — those first few records. That’s not to say that I don’t think they were the purest that they could be at the time, because that’s who I was at the time; that’s who I was navigating. But this definitely marks a very, like, line in the sand for me creatively.”
Glenn calls today’s radically transformed musical landscape “mind-blowing,” citing the cultural impact of artists like Hayley Kiyoko and Jesse Saint John, as well as phenomenons such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye, for championing increased acceptance of queer artists and themes in popular culture.
“I think there’s so much more to go but I remember discussions of [my] coming out,” he says. “I don’t want to say who, but there were people in my team at the time that were like, ‘You know, you have to be aware that this might affect your career.’ There was still kind of that bullshit going around. Where now you look at, like, a Sam Smith, who’s one of the bigger pop stars in the world, and they are just completely embracing pronouns and normalizing it, and I think that beautiful. And then you have someone like Dan who is in one of the biggest rock bands in the world, if not the biggest rock band in the world right now, and he’s choosing to use that to support LGBTQ people. So to me, the conversation’s more present and more mainstream than ever.”
However, when it comes to his own role as an out and proud rock star, the Neon Trees frontman is decidedly more humble. When asked if he feels any responsibility as a visible gay artist, Glenn gently pushes back against the idea.
“I don’t know if I think about it every day,” he admits. “I know I’m gay, I’m proud of it. I think about what’s going to help youth, I read my DMs, I try to put positive, affirming things out on my Twitter. I’m always mindful of it, but I don’t operate as a queer artist only. But I don’t even like how that sounds, you know? I just feel like what speaks volumes is very comfortable, authentic expression… more than really calculated shit.”
Ultimately, Glenn’s focus remains on the music. With a new body of work ready for 2020 (he’s still tossing around three different titles for the album), the singer-songwriter is excited at the prospect of Neon Trees re-entering what he refers to as “the new music order” of the coming decade.
“I feel like the last few years felt like the wild west with streaming, and it’s been really exciting to watch artists just kind of do what they want, the way they want to do it,” he says. “We’re very much putting a record out and we’re trickling out music until that record’s out, and then I really feel like there will be more music after that. So to me, I’m really excited to turn the lights on and keep them on for a while.”