Justin Utley is still on a mission. The former Mormon missionary, later a pop star in the church's own Utah-based entertainment industry, may no longer be part of the church that wanted nothing to do with him once he came out as gay. In fact, now the Utah-born, New York-based musician is a thorn in the church's side, pushing for it to accept gays from the outside.
Just as important, though, is Utley's crusade – so to speak – to inspire and motivate people, especially gay people, through his music. You can take the boy out of the Mormon faith, in other words, but you can't take the Mormon out of the boy – at least, in terms of dedication to community service and uplift.
Utley's second album, Nothing This Real, opens with serious promise – real musical heat. He channels R.E.M. in the twangy but blistering title track, sounding a lot like Michael Stipe as he talk-sings the verses before wailing a bit in the chorus. The powerful lyrics focus on his decision to leave the Mormon church after suffering through ex-gay conversion therapy. ''I'm ready to go, to do what I feel,'' he sings. ''I'll do whatever I want to, 'cause nothing's this real.''
Next comes ''Great Escape,'' an even more hard-edged tune, also about leaving an oppressive past behind. ''Yeah, your life is calling,'' he sings. ''Better get moving on before it's too late.''
The lyrics – which later touch on his relationships, as well as losing people he cared about – generally maintain a sense of verve throughout the set's remaining eight tracks. But the music mostly settles into a blander blend of pop, rock and alt-country that could be called Daughtry-lite. And if you grew up with contemporary Christian music, you can't help but hear traces of that often too-sweet, syrupy sub-genre.
Here's to Utley sticking to his musical guns throughout his next album.
Download These: ''Nothing This Real,'' ''Great Escape"