We were promised a more rock-based offering from pop's poet laureate and he has delivered, along with - as usual - a whole host of other talking points. Almost two years after he came out of exile in Los Angeles with the brilliant 'You Are the Quarry', Morrissey is back again with work which may not rank close to his best for some, but should prove integral to the legend that will follow his death.

Though the Manchester maestro is only 46, a preoccupation with mortality (along with sex and faith) permeates throughout 'Ringleader of the Tormentors'. His apparent announcement through lyrics (how else?) of the end of his publicly-stated celibacy has captured the imagination of the critics. It is not, however, the true essence of this album.

'Dear God Please Help Me' is a graphic account of a sexual experience. Sure, the revelation that the singer is finally succumbing to pleasures of the flesh is rather big news. However, what should receive more attention is the beautiful string score by spaghetti western legend Ennio Morricone.

The real sensation here is that Moz seems to be genuinely content in his middle-aged frame. Perhaps he expected to perish at a young age like his cinematic idol, James Dean. If he is disappointed not to have bowed out yet, Morrissey certainly isn't showing it, as 'In the Future When All's Well' suggests ("Living longer than I had intended/Something must have gone right?").

If the album is guilty of anything it is that it over-reaches with 12 tracks, which may offer ammunition to critics that accuse the singer's solo songs of all sounding the same. In fairness, any two of the last four songs could easily have been cut in order to give 'ROTT' a tighter feel.

A relocation to Rome from LA, as well as the decisions to bring in producer Tony Visconti (best known for his work with T Rex and David Bowie) and guitarist Jesse Tobias (who had a brief stint with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the early 1990s) ensure there was no lapse into a 'YATQ' sequel.

When Morrissey gets his lyrics, vocals and melodies right, the music generally follows suit. There are some misses, particularly in the latter stages, but the moments of magic more than compensate. His wizardry with words may have lost some of its edge but there are still some classic lines enclosed. The bit in 'The Youngest Was the Most Loved' where he sings the refrain "There is no such thing in life as normal" backed by a choir of schoolchildren leaves the listener with an equal sense of reassurance and unease.

Such an ability is precious, and is one of the many reasons why he will always be a hero to so many.

Séamus Leonard