Alter Bridge sought to rebrand themselves a bit with their fifth album The Last Hero. In the run-up to the album, they told fans that the songs on it would be more topical than in the past, addressing current events. Lead singer Myles Kennedy said that the 2016 election inspired at least some of the songs. In addition, when the album art came out, fans noticed that the design was much different than before. Rather than the arty, rough edges that defined previous albums, this one was much more sleek and modern, as smooth as a razor blade and with an entirely different script for the band name.
On their previous two albums, AB III and Fortress, Alter Bridge placed a lot of emphasis on musical experimentation. One of the reasons I liked Fortress as much as I did was that the constantly shifting sonic layers kept listeners’ interest all the way through. This time, though, there’s little of that, with some songs even sliding towards the dreaded “generic” label. There’s no real standout moments for drummer Scott Phillips or bassist Brian Marshall like before, and even some of guitarist Mark Tremonti’s solos are cut shorter than normal. That’s not to say they’re bad, per se, but there’s no epic, “Blackbird”- style epic of flying fingers. Some of his best solos on this record are the ones that are more nuanced, such as on “Cradle to the Grave,” and “Twilight.”
Where this album stands out musically is not so much how it finishes songs as how it starts them. “The Other Side,” has a cool intro that almost sounds like a chant. “This Side of Fate” features Kennedy’s and Tremonti’s guitar parts layering over each other, with a faster part full of sixteenth notes blending with a more legato layer. The start of “Cradle to the Grave” could almost be its own instrumental song.
But the band was right when it said that the lyrics would be the most interesting part of the album. Their lyrics are typically pretty abstract, and aside from a few songs, it’s not readily apparent where the band got their inspiration. But with songs like “Show Me a Leader,” the band makes it clear what message they’re trying to get across. They lament political polarization (“…we’re too numb and divided…”) and call for the world to “show me a leader who knows what is right.” The only lyric that bugs me on that song is “Show me a leader that won’t compromise,” because I think leaders who won’t compromise are what got us into the current mess of polarization that we’re in. Though later on in the album, they talk about how dangerous being uncompromising is, so maybe they meant something like “a leader who won’t compromise on what is right” or something. Kennedy’s vocals on the “Noooooooo” part are one of many standout moments he has on the album. He really shows off his range and ability to hold notes on this album more than any recent ones.
Other interesting lyrical moments include on “The Writing on the Wall,” which Kennedy has said is about those who deny the reality of man-made climate change, and it’s easy to see, with words like “Refusing every warning/deny the rate of change,” and “And the writing’s on the wall/that the end will begin/Still you do nothing at all/Throwing lies to the wind.” The band also explores the nature of heroism in “Crows on a Wire,” which conjures an image of someone who has attained power and influence but is beholden to others who will tear them down if they don’t do what they want. I’m sure he had a few Congressmen in mind when he wrote that. Finally, “You Will Be Remembered” honors those who have made sacrifices, and I interpreted it as being a thank-you to veterans. “The Last Hero” serves as a summary of sorts, a way of tying together all the themes the band discusses on earlier songs. My friend Aaron suggested that it could be in part about President Obama, and there’s evidence for that, such as with the lyrics, “Words and accusations/History revised/But time is gonna tell that you were right.”
The album’s weakness lyrically is that it can sometimes get a bit repetitive. “My Champion” and “Poison in Your Veins” are back-to-back tracks that are rather similar. “Twilight” talks about some of the same subjects as “Show Me a Leader.” “This Side of Fate” and “Island of Fools” are fairly similar too. Longtime Alter Bridge fans will hear some themes from previous albums repeated as well. I feel like one or two tracks could have been deleted from this album without really having much effect on its impact.
Despite this, though, The Last Hero is essential listening for modern rock fans, so I’m giving it a buy it rating. It may not be quite as polished as Fortress or Blackbird, but the lyrical themes alone make it worthy of multiple listens. Here are my track picks:
“Show Me a Leader”
I couldn’t find video links for “You Will Be Remembered” and “The Writing’s on the Wall,” my other picks, so you’ll need to take my word for it :).