Back in 1983, James first started making the emotional, white-boy indie rock that seems so prevalent in pop-culture today. Eventually, they began releasing a string of singles through the ’90s that filled the college radio and films of the decade. And Hey Ma, the band’s first proper album since 2001, is again a part of that musical tradition, with almost another decade of maturity doing little to alter James’ pleasing sound. Just like the work of Coldplay, The Decemberists and James’ many other stylistic successors, Hey Ma is a soothing play from start to finish. James’ beautiful embodiment of emotion yields a pretty album — not quite a masterful return to form, but definitely a welcome and accomplished release.

Right from the start with the softly gliding “Bubbles,” James proves they still know how to craft an elegant melody built on just the right combination of lush pop gloss and a reserved taste for noisier fare. Frontman Tim Booth still croons effortlessly of tender kisses, love and jubilantly living life, but he also releases bursts of sound and energy with the song’s refrain, drawing these passionate outcries from the tension that seems to build up with each bar of twinkling piano.

Of course, that tendency to favor noisy vitality in small amounts is what has always made James listenable. Their soft balladry would be as numbing as listening to Coldplay’s “Yellow” 4,000 times if it weren’t for dynamic structures like that of the band’s early hit “Ring the Bells” or the horn-propelled “Upside Down” on Hey Ma.

Hey Ma also shines with some particularly surprising themes and lyrics like those the James’ hit “Laid” made famous with the line “This bed is on fire with passionate love/ The neighbors complain about the noises above/ But she only comes when she’s on top.” The rocking title track “Hey Ma” feels radio-friendly until the refrain sings “Hey Ma, the boys are in body bags/ Coming home in pieces,” an almost certain commentary on present Middle Eastern affairs. And the down-tempo ballad “Boom Boom” plays like Monster-era REM and considers the wise and debatably optimistic statement “Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.”

It wouldn’t be surprising for Hey Ma to be sloppy, uninspired or even downright bad after James disbanded for a seven-year hiatus, but that is in no way the case. This new work hails back to the best and most thoughtful work of James’ career, namely Laid. In fact the two albums’ covers both exhibit ironically playful images — on Laid, the band decked in dresses and on Hey Ma, a playing baby with a gun nearby — yet are generally introspective and moody affairs under the surface. Simple pop isn’t this band’s style, even if it sometimes sounds that way.

Hey Ma begins and closes with softly building tracks that strip away all the layers of indie-rock convention for tried-and-true James appeal. More upbeat affairs drive the album along, and the final three tracks fit together effortlessly as a philosophical unit.

But the final track, “I Want to Go Home,” seems to condense James’ successful reemergence into one cohesive statement: “I want to go home/ But in this bar my heart’s dying.” James can still take the most beautiful, lofty melody and manage to make it satisfactorily downtrodden. The band may have come home, but in those prodigal years they haven’t changed the musical and lyrical flavor that makes their work so listenable.

4 stars out of 5