DOES ANYONE STILL give a fig about Morrissey? Five years ago he filled the Hollywood Bowl (twice). Now, at 38, a string of sublimely bad solo records behind him, Brit pop's Sylvia-Plath-in-drag is only a bit more vital than Jim Croce. Yet, like any good modern romantic, from Yeats to Nick Drake, the Mozzer stands outside all this and he always has. Even at the height of his success, he did his damnedest to ward off the rabble that fell at his feet. Look at the title of his most successful album, Viva Hate, and consider his obstinate lack of success as an actor, or his staunch refusal to give a usable interview. He never needed us, and we kept coming--for a while. It wasn't really until the horrid Vauxhall and I that even die-hard cultists started to wonder if they were backing the wrong horse.

Maladjusted sums this up in a pun, both on his worldview and his position in the pop marketplace. But as critics and fans ponder his reasons for sticking around, the bard moseys on, nose turned skyward. "Who asked you anyway/it's my life to wreck/my own way," he croons in the almost-winning "Alma Matters," a rewrite of "It's My Party" if ever there was one. But he's not asking for empathy. "I don't get along with myself/and I don't get along with anyone else," he moans with bile in the ghastly "Wide To Receive."

Yes, Maladjusted stinks. "Ambitious Outsiders," "Wide To Receive," and the string-soaked "Sorrow Will Come In the End" are as bad as this guy can get. To wit: "Download something/useful/or useless/because I'm lying here ready to receive," he pleas, apparently logging on to Telnet from the same recumbent posture his hero Elvis lounged in while he ate fried chicken in front of the TV. Yet, as these sentiments sink in, and even longtime partisans fight off the compulsion to cringe, our hero hits stride. "I don't dwell on what I'm missing," he strives to convey in the almost-good "Ammunition." He even gets cocky, paraphrasing his other hero, Keats: "I don't need more ammunition/I've got more than I can spend."

There's something beautiful in that. You can bet James Dean's farm that a decade from now, when he's 48--twenty years after the Smiths and 19 years after he mattered--he'll still be pressing onward, silk shirt open beyond his expanding midriff, sky-blue eyes bright as flames, crooning for Keats, for Yeats, for El. At Mystic Lake Casino. First show at 7, another at 9:30. Erasure opens. I'll see ya there.

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