Maybe Steve Perry was always this nostalgic. Maybe that sense of transportive wonder accounts for his songs' mystery, and their magic – even when they'd just been released. Maybe Perry-era Journey always sounded like something from the near horizon, something to be dreamed of and yearned for. Something unreachable.

That would certainly explain Perry's staying power, despite so long away: His songs tend to co-mingle very real memories of that time with these universal themes of longing. Everybody becomes a small-town girl or her boy. Everybody, girl and boy, inhabits that same lonely world.

This sounds terribly old fashioned now, and in a way it always was. Yet, at the same time, it all felt very new back then, like some fresh alchemy. He was part of the zeitgeist, not some ghost. They played the "Faithfully" video on MTV until everyone knew precisely which verse heralded the shaving of Perry's ridiculous mustache. Journey didn't just rule the charts or the road. They had their own video game.

So when Steve Perry returns, it's fair to wonder what might have changed, in him and in us. It's fair to wonder if his essential wistfulness remains, and if that sentimentality can transfer in a modern age defined both by fragmentation and online smart-assery. Quite frankly, though, the worst thing would have been if Traces tried, almost a quarter century past his last solo album, to stake out some new ground, or to contemporize something that somehow always seemed blissfully out of time.

You want Steve Perry to be Steve Perry, if you were ever a fan. And Traces delivers.

Watch Steve Perry's 'No Erasin'' Video

He guarded against those kind of missteps, whether consciously or not, by keeping the prolonged sessions that produced this discreetly involving studio effort so intimate. This is the product of internal conversations, as Perry struggled past the death of a new love, and it plays like that throughout. Traces is meditative, soft spoken and vulnerable, as personal a record as a former melodic-rock superstar has perhaps ever released.

Only rarely does he dabble in the kind of soaring power ballads that defined his old band, on songs like "No Erasin'," "Most of All" and, especially, "Sun Shines Gray." Perry isn't trying to reclaim that crown, so much as reconnect on a deeper level. That's why this wouldn't work as a Journey record. "We're Still Here," the desperately sad "In the Rain" and "We Fly" aren't playing to the nosebleed seats. This is the kind of record that translates at a coffee shop, not Madison Square Garden.

In this way, sales figures for Journey albums like Escape will assuredly remain safe. Instead, what Perry has done with Traces is expand upon and – most crucially – personalize that era's essential themes of sweet reverie, of love lost, of treasured remembrance. His protagonists, like his voice, are now older and obviously weathered. This is how it all turned out for that singer in the smoky room. He's beat up, maybe irrevocably. His best days might just be behind him.

Still, what days they were. Whether Perry is talking about his private life, his place in the quickly shifting pop firmament, or that of the everyday fan who doesn't recognize the old person staring back in the mirror, it all rings true. This is what happens. This is how everything irrevocably unfolds. It really does go on and on and on. Traces is here to remind us to take it all in.