By Davis Blount
In 2019, James Curran, aka James the Mormon, aka JTM, released his third and final album, Five Years to Live. Since first releasing music in 2014, JTM has always had a tempestuous relationship with how his public persona was interpreted by fans, namely other “Mormons.” As JTM continued to put out new music and create high-profile collaborations, his fame, namely in the Utah Valley, grew exponentially.
You’ve likely heard JTM’s collaboration with BYU Football, “Tellin’ You Y.” Perhaps you remember a news story about some of JTM’s philanthropic endeavors, including donating a percentage of his music sales to charitable causes, like Our Underground Railroad, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Missionary Fund, and providing hot meals to folks in need in the Salt Lake area. And if you’re of a certain age, you’ve at least considered applying to be cast in one of his famously high-energy and well-shot music videos. Regardless of where you know JTM from, the artist’s regional fame had reached a high point ahead of the release of his album Five Years to Live.
The notoriety and expectations ahead of Five Years to Live had obviously begun to wear on JTM. After originally making music under the moniker “James the Mormon,” JTM decided to shorten his stage name to underscore the fact that his music was and always would be secular.
While his actions on and off the stage pointed toward an artist with a clear intention to uplift and inspire others, some members of his faith spoke out about his obligation to do more, to share his story and his faith more explicitly. JTM has never been one to shy away from his experiences and his inspiration: on social media and in his lyrics, the artist frequently shares stories from his mission, his impressions on various spiritual topics, and speaks candidly about the rocky road that led him to his faith-filled life. Despite his best efforts to toe the line between creative freedom and his fan-appointed role as a plainclothes missionary, JTM never seemed to measure up in the eyes of some fans. Over the years, JTM would take to social media or interviews, speaking honestly about the struggle. While his music was designed to uplift and inspire, he was steadfast that his creative pursuits would not be solely guided by his religion’s goal of spreading the gospel.
With this tension as backdrop to the release of Five Years to Live, JTM delivered another stellar album. While the pressure of being all things to all people looms large over the effort, JTM manages to produce an album that shows listeners what he is truly about: creating community, sharing his perspective, and letting anyone within earshot know that it is never too late to change.
JTM brings a stacked cast of local talent to the album, including Dvddy, Gabrielle McKeon, Jenn Blosil, Jay Warren, and Bly Wallentine, to name a few. The production and beats on much of the album beg to be put on your next summer roadtrip playlist. Often, however, the lyrics supporting these earworms include the gut-wrenching themes of neglect, abuse, and self-sabotage. While Five Years to Live can be enjoyed as a light and easy 30-minute bop, the production masks a level of hurt that invites listeners to explore. Perhaps as listeners engage with the difficult themes of the album, they can find the catharsis that JTM seems to be working through on the album.
Nowhere is the dichotomy between danceable and depressing better exemplified than in the single “I Could Be Wrong.” Joined on the track by RJ Rouse, JTM created a music video with a caption that explains his inspiration behind the track and the video. For much of his adolescence, JTM explained that he was the victim of physical and mental abuse at the hands of his parents. Spending hours locked in a dog cage as punishment, JTM reclaims this traumatic memory by including it in the video of a fictional conversation between himself and his estranged parents. In the caption, JTM explains that he hopes this song and his life can serve as an example to others who are going through similar experiences, that life gets better and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This is explained beautifully in the song’s chorus, which asks:
Are you tellin’ me that it’s almost over?
Say to me there’s light at the end of this tunnel.
You could be right and I could be wrong,
We could just fight and we could be strong.
The emotional resonance of this thought is only heightened when you see the path JTM has chosen to take since his trauma growing up: replacing harshness with hope, abuse with altruism, JTM’s music and life both point toward a way out of the darkness, ending a pattern of trauma and abuse that is far too often cyclical.
What will be the final legacy of JTM? Fortunately for fans, JTM has reconsidered his stance since releasing Five Years to Live, putting out a new single in 2020 with promises of more music to come. Hopefully the weight of others’ expectations won’t prove as significant an obstacle to JTM in the future as it has in the past. The expectations have had no noticeable impact on the quality of JTM’s work, but fans ought to hope that an artist of his caliber feels free to make whatever he wants.
The future looks bright for JTM. For those who feel that he isn’t enough of one thing or another to fit their perception of what he ought to be, perhaps they should think back on his charitable efforts, his disarming candor, and his relentless optimism and consider the words of one much wiser than this writer: by his fruits, ye shall know him.
Make sure to follow JTM on Instagram! You can watch the music video for “I Could Be Wrong” below!