'Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body?" For Morrissey, the answer is still "I dunno", although, as "Dear God Please Help Me" ("there are explosive kegs/between my legs"), the most talked-about song from Ringleader of the Tormentors attests, the answer is more likely than ever to be the former.
In any case, Morrissey's no-sex-please-I'm-celibate image was never the whole story. From the flipside of The Smiths' first ever single ("Handsome Devil"), carnal desire was always present. And looking back at the body language, the way he used to hoist his shirt and stroke his own skinny chest, it's clear he only ever wanted to be a pin-up.
As he enters his late forties, and begins a UK tour in one of those sterile turn-of-the-Millennium, no-drinks-in-the-auditorium civic theatres, that compulsion is still there. When someone heckles him to take his shirt off, he replies "For what?", adjusting his mike stand with the practiced swagger and smirk of a 1970s stand-up. "You really can't be that starved." But it's merely a tease. A few songs later, he unbuttons himself and tosses his shirt at us, causing a melee in the front rows.
Most of Morrissey's signature fixations, indeed, remain intact. Antagonism still runs deep: "I noticed today in the newspapers that Bono had beaten me in a lyrical competition. And he's very nice, but... really."
His peculiar relationship with masculinity and toughness continues too: one of the few solo songs predating his 2004 comeback is "Reader, Meet Author" from 1995's Southpaw Grammar: "Books aren't Stanley knives/And if a fight broke out here tonight/You'd be the first away..." On the tram home, I meet a couple of suedeheaded squaddies who've come all the way from Germany, and tell me they sit around in their barracks listening to Morrissey, drinking beer. It occurs to me how much he'd love to know that.
And he remains not merely an Anglophile, but a proud regionalist, and a nostalgic one. "First of the Gang to Die" is altered to refer to "the Collyhurst reservoirs", there's a cover of "Song from under the Floorboards" by Mancunian legends Magazine, he rambles about the old clocktower and flagstones in Salford market, and (for some reason) Gracie Fields. It's not a million miles from Mrs Brady, Old Lady in Viz.
Anglophile he may be, but he's long since abandoned these shores, and recently moved from Hollywood (no more afternoon tea with Nancy Sinatra) to Rome. It shows in all sorts of ways, from his entrance music (an Italian version of "You'll Never Walk Alone") to his rosy tan, to the tricolore which adorn the bass drum and Boz Boorer's twin-necked guitar. He's clearly invested in some Italian styling too: with his tailored suit and silvery temples, he's starting to resemble Paulie from The Sopranos.
Above all, his charisma is undiminished. He's still magnetic, still holds an almost mystical power for men (and it is mostly men) of my age and tastes. As he cracks the microphone lead like a whip through the locomotive ending of "Still Ill", my skin crackles with electricity and suddenly I'm 17 again. It can't last. As "Life Is A Pigsty" seems to acknowledge ("I can't reach you any more"), he can never recapture that moment, that life-changing potency, any more than we can recapture the potential to be changed by it. And there does seem an almost deliberate boringness to much of the new Morrissey material, with the same tempos and the same sub-Scott Walker orchestral arrangements. One wonders if he and his band of rockabilly musos aren't tempted to cut loose and release something as deranged as "Miserable Lie" or "Shakespeare's Sister", just for the hell of it.
That said, I'd rather be bored by Morrissey than almost anyone else. And while "Girlfriend in a Coma" is a reminder that The Smiths could write songs that are down there with solo Morrissey's worst, "I Will See You in Far Off Places" demonstrates that solo Morrissey can write songs which are up there with The Smiths' best.