BWW Album Review: Norbert Leo Butz Is In It For THE LONG HAUL
The Long Haul is Tony nominee Norbert Leo Butz's first original album. Butz has always been one of the more unconventional, versatile voices in contemporary musical theatre, and this album gives him a new chance to shine as both a singer and as a songwriter. It's a pleasant, bluegrass and country-tinged set of songs that doesn't break new ground but is a perfectly enjoyable album overall.
Butz's songs lean heavily into some of the classic traits of bluegrass, country, and gospel-tinged music - if you're here for Broadway and pop sounds, you'll be surprised. A lot of the tropes of these genres appear throughout the album, with bittersweet story-songs. Butz deserves kudos for not shying away from some of the genre's roots with sharp-edged social commentary. "Mary Grace," for instance, kicks off like a standard-issue sad song about a sad girl, but also includes pointed lyrics like "everyone forgot her / even the government." Country music has a rich history of commenting on society's ills, and it's refreshing to hear an artist leaning more into that legacy than a studio-polished aesthetic.
Most of the songs on the album fit into one of two overarching categories: the bittersweet, reflective ones and the sweet, hopeful ones. The title track, "The Long Haul," is a standout in the former category. It deals with a lot of the same themes that we expect from a sad, bluesy country ballad, but it's got a slew of contemporary references that prove this song form is far from outdated. "I'm No One" also shines, with its bittersweet reflections on legacy and love. "These Days," meanwhile, handles its emotions well but doesn't quite gel as well as some of the other songs.
"If Wishes Were Horses" and "Hotel Bride," meanwhile, represent the softer, gentler side of the album. Butz's voice seems made for this kind of music, finding all the interesting melodic moments and an unforgettably unique sound. Even without the context of a full-on Broadway musical "story," Butz is a born storyteller, making each song feel like a miniature journey. There's something lovely and wistful about some of the lyrics, and it really works well. "South Mountain Waltz," the last track on the album, closes things out with a similarly thoughtful, semi-uplifting mood.
Even the tracks that aren't really standouts are perfectly fine, even if they're not so memorable. "Hole in the Night" trades in a few too many clichés, and "Waterfall," despite some lovely imagery, never quite figures out what its central theme is supposed to be. Still, it's a strong debut for Butz as a full-fledged singer-songwriter, and we'll look forward to seeing him continue along this path in the future.