The most immediately striking thing about the new Morrissey album is its cover: the man himself, wearing a sky-blue Fred Perry t-shirt, is casually holding a smiling toddler in his right arm.
But there's more to the picture than meets the eye. Look closer, and we see that Baby Moz has a tattoo of a butterfly on his forehead, while Morrissey Snr has one of a caterpillar on his arm. What can it all mean? That it's only when we revert back to our childhood state that we become fully mature? However, one sees this cryptic visual riddle, its essential playfulness is typical Morrissey.
Also guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows is the inner-sleeve photo accompanying the new single 'I'm Throwing Around Paris', which features Morrissey and his band standing quite naked except for strategically placed 7-inch records preserving their modesty.
At last, someone's found a new use for vinyl.
But what of the album itself? Well, we were given a sneak preview last summer, when Morrissey unveiled a number of the songs in his gigs in the Cork Marquee and Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin.
Certainly, his famous mordant wit is in abundance on Years Of Refusal. 'Something Is Squeezing My Skull' kicks things off with a rush of meds to the head -- Moz listing off the plethora of chemicals that he's been prescribed: "Diazepam (that's Valium)/ Temazepam/ Lithium/ HRT/ ECT ... How long must I stay on this stuff?"
The comic timing remains impeccable, and the strident musical backing confirms that, though he celebrates his 50th birthday this year, Morrissey sounds far from middle-aged.
The album was laid down almost live in the studio with minimal overdubs, which gives the record an urgent, invigorating feel; guitarists Boz Boorer and Jesse Tobias are very much at the front of the mix. Producer Jerry Finn, alas, passed away soon after finishing the album.
This being Morrissey, the subject of death and mortality is broached at regular intervals; at times with jaw-dropping candour. 'When Last I Spoke To Carol' tells the sad tale of the untimely demise of a fan. One thinks back to 'Angel, Angel, Down We Together' from 1988's Viva Hate, in which Morrissey makes a desperate plea for a suicidal fan not to do the deed.
Twenty years on, he finds himself in a similar situation. This time around, though, the the worst comes to pass.
"When I said goodbye to Carol/ Black earth upon the casket fell/ She had faded to something I always knew/ To the rescue nobody ever comes." But instead of solemn strings, the musical barrels along with mariachi trumpets to the fore. It's quite something to behold.
As is 'Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed', which is as dark as pop music gets -- mother is driven to drowning herself, to be followed by her grief-stricken children. "Life is nothing much to lose/It's just so lonely here without you," Morrissey sings in a heartbreaking croon.
At times, it seems like Morrissey has never sung better. I'd love to hear this one booming out of the 2fm Roadcaster some afternoon.
Perhaps the best song on the album, though, is 'It's Not Your Birthday Any More', which sees Morrissey getting more explicitly carnal than ever before. It's a tough, unsentimental tour de force, with a gigantic, loping riff.
It's also a far cry from the defiantly celibate Morrissey of old: Johnny Marr once said that The Smiths wrote songs about not having sex. But on his last album, Ringleader Of The Tormentors, Morrissey gleefully gets his leg over on 'Dear God, Please Help Me'. And now he's doing it on the floor! Heck, judging by that front cover, he may even be procreating!
If the album's high points are outstanding, it remains a flawed musical offering -- it seems strange he should include the two singles ('That's How People Grow Up' and 'All You Need Is Me') that have already appeared on last year's Greatest Hits anthology. Also, the final two songs on the album don't really add anything to the record.
But on the whole, there's plenty for Morrissey fans to get their teeth into on Years Of Refusal. It shows that at a time when he is increasingly being accorded the status of elder statesman of rock, Morrissey is not quite ready to shuffle off to a retirement home.
Now, if only he would add a Dublin date to his Irish tour this May ...
Morrissey plays Killarney INEC, April 28; Galway Leisureland, April 29; Omagh Leisure Centre, May 1; Belfast Waterfront, May 2.