In America, most considered James a whimsical Brit-pop act, thanks to the ubiquity of 1993’s coyly sexual “Laid.” But that song didn’t hint at the beauty and emotional depth of the Manchester, England, band’s catalog—or the respect it’s earned from peers like The Smiths (early tourmates) and Brian Eno (who produced the Laid and Wah Wah albums).
Hey Ma, the group’s first new record since it reunited in 2007 after a five-year hiatus, echoes James’ most nuanced, sophisticated work. Trumpets swing in triumphant melodic arcs, matching the dramatic cadences of vocalist Tim Booth and the band’s trademark ringing guitars. The infectious, sunny ’60s-pop homage “Waterfall” is destined to be a joyous set-closer, while thundering piano and sparkling aquamarine riffs end in cinematic orchestra swells on “Boom Boom,” and “Oh My Heart” fits seamlessly with James’ U.K. chart hits (i.e., “Come Home,” “Tomorrow”).
The second half of Ma slows down and nods to the ambient, experimental side the band cultivated circa Laid. The pensive “Semaphore” features strings and evocative, precise guitar, while classical piano and heartbeat-throb solemn beats drive the hymn-like “Of Monsters and Heroes and Men.” As always, James’ lyrics can be a bit too earnest and precious—but their overwhelming optimism erases any shortcomings on this lush, beautiful return.