EMMETT KELLY is driving on an extremely loud freeway to make a recording session somewhere north of Los Angeles. After 10 years in Chicago, the busy songwriter has recently returned to Southern California, where he began his career. His phone reception is spotty, but it could also be the lunch-hour traffic that sends him on a bit of a rant while he explains his new album, Goes Missing, released under his longstanding moniker, the Cairo Gang.

Goes Missing is more traditional pop and rock than the Cairo Gang's previous releases, save for a sharp turn toward Roger McGuinn-esque 12-string guitar on the 2013 mini-album Tiny Rebels. With lots of hooks and nostalgic turns of melody, Goes Missing openly embraces its influences without trying to shroud them in a dubious cloak of obscurity.

"The community I always lived around was very ridiculing of referential music," says Kelly. "I got to the point to where I was like, 'Fuck, man, what do you like?' There are so many bands, and some of them sound like other bands, but instead of it being a problem, I'm more like, 'I like that band, so fuck yeah.'"

Kelly and the Cairo Gang are reasonably well known thanks to a longtime collaboration with Bonnie "Prince" Billy, in addition to being a hired gun for a laundry list of other super-talented songsmiths. Kelly is renowned as a session player, but his own material is equally praiseworthy.

The feeling of wanderlust that permeates Goes Missing actually precipitated the album's writing and recording: Kelly downsized his possessions, moved into his van, and hit the road, recording in various places along the way. "This record is about the idea of supposed stability and supposed 'home' feelings, all the while juxtaposed with this totally rootless existence," he says.

On Goes Missing, Kelly liberated himself from the idea that he had to write specific kinds of songs in order to thwart his inner popster. It yielded a slew of addictive tunes, the best of which is "Be What You Are," a nearly perfect slice of pop-rock gold that dares you not to hum its melody ad infinitum.

"I was absolutely comfortable with the idea that I was writing a song that was so recognizable," Kelly says. "I've been internally brutalized by this concept of trying to be interesting and trying to be original and all the while laboring over this intense, interesting, weird thing. I don't know what's better: to make something that's super heady or intense, or something that's really easy. Either way, it seems like the whole point is to trust what you like. There's a reason why you like it."

Elsewhere, Kelly made liberal use of a drum machine—another new incorporation—to flesh out the acid-pop haze of "Sniper" and the whip-smart new-wave ballad "Chains." For Kelly, Goes Missing was first and foremost an exposition of what he sees as a newfound creative freedom.

"It's more liberating to enjoy yourself than it is to find things that aren't cool about something," he says. "To make something overtly 'artistic' or harder to reach is totally just as contrived as making something that sounds like a Beatles song."