Morrissey's new album, `Maladjusted', is good enough to put him back on the musical map, writes Nick Hasted. Trouble is, who's going to listen?

Morrissey's at it again. He's got another single out, from another album. It's got another witty title, "Satan Rejected My Soul", and it's been another near-flop, a limp 39 in Sunday's chart. More than any pop star since punk, Morrissey once meant everything. Now he means nothing. Two thirtyish strangers, overheard in a record shop last week, summed up how things stand. They examined the cover of his latest album, a plain, pensive picture of the star. They perused the title, Maladjusted. And they laughed. "I think we've got the point by now," one said.

If they'd listened to the record, the laughter might have died. It stands with Morrissey's best. But that's no longer the point. An artistic renaissance can't rescue Morrissey from the things he's done. In the eyes of once- fervent fans, he's a traitor. In the eyes of critics, he's an enemy. To understand why, at a commercial nadir, one pop star can still generate so much fury, you need to think back six years. It was in 1992 that Morrissey was deemed unforgivable.

It had already been five years since The Smiths had torn apart. Morrissey had spent the time pining for Johnny Marr, the guitarist who had written the tunes to fit his words. Then came Your Arsenal, a record so fine it should have been his salvation. Instead, one song in particular caused consternation, "National Front Disco", with its chorus "England for the English". Then he cancelled concerts, and flirted with skinhead crowds. The NME crystallised the sense that something was wrong in a special issue, in which Morrissey was charged with racism. Intended to drag a response from the singer, it did the opposite. He would not justify himself, and few felt prepared to do so for him. Only now, as the aftershocks from that confrontation fade, can its substance be considered.

"National Front Disco" is the lasting evidence, Listened to today, it sounds brave. Far from a fascist diatribe, it's about a lost white English boy mourned by his friends as he looks for salvation, or revenge, in the dancehall. There's a hole in his heart, something missing he won't find. There should be 100 songs sympathising with the victims of racist violence for every one that understands its perpetrators. There's still room for Morrissey's stray note of sympathy. It's stayed a twisting thorn in his side.

It hasn't helped that he's never apologised or explained. When he has spoken to journalists, any rope he's been offered has been used to hang himself. Asked about the song during an interview in 1994 - with another fine album, Vauxhall and I, just out - he noted the lack of hatred in its singing. But in the same breath, he uttered stupidities. In a song on Vauxhall and I, "Speedway", he seemed to take his critics on. "Well, all the rumours keeping me grounded, I never said they were completely unfounded," he provoked over a beat designed to smash his enemies. But by now, people were finding other reasons to tire of him.

"I always liked artists who remained aloof and who felt somehow superior," he told a journalist last year. True to his word, Morrissey has slipped out of reach. Smiths record sleeves were a list of his obsessions. Morrissey records show Morrissey. He seems to want the distance he saw in pop stars as a boy. He's become a mixture of Kenneth Williams and Elvis, denying a private life, becoming his image. But where Elvis's image consumed the world, Morrissey's, only ever adored by dissatisfied souls in the Eighties, had to fade. As he seemed to turn his back on his fans, they have turned their backs on him.

Told that way, Morrissey's story is a self-inflicted tragedy. But beneath the vitriol and contempt when he's discussed these days, there's still a sense of thwarted love. We still can't leave him alone. And there's another way of telling this story, which suggests that's only right. Morrissey has been foolish in his actions. But he's also been brave. In an industry where pop stars run through hoops for good press, Morrissey will not bend. He'd rather shrink to nothing than change.

And then there's the music. Maladjusted is the latest, as fascinating as anything he's made. It's also a record which, for all its sadness, makes you want to fight through the tears. It sounds beautiful.

It's not an album a Nazi could make. Nor is it the record of a selfish man. Morrissey's themes may seem limited, making him dance on the head of a pin. But the dance is getting better. One more thing. The last track on this week's single, the newest thing he's done, is an angry epic about Northern Ireland. For the first time in an age, Morrissey is looking around him, to consider the world. Don't be sure you've got the point of him yet. He still matters.