The sexual liberation of Morrissey

Years of Refusal features Moz in all his post-pubescent glory

People have called Morrissey a lot of things over the years. Stubborn, whiny, obtuse, even a racist. Nobody has called him sexually well-adjusted, however. But, as strange as it may seem, that characterization is starting to fit. His image and his music have changed noticeably since he announced a few years ago that he's no longer celibate.

As a recent near-nude publicity photo indicates, he's become more sexually confident, and his songwriting has evolved as well. His latest album, Years of Refusal, does something unprecedented for a Morrissey work – it concerns mature, romantic relationships.

The sexually stunted outcast we all fell in love with appears to be long gone, and his fans likely suspect the worst. We don't want our icons to evolve or grow up, after all, as anyone who booed when Bob Dylan went electric in 1965 or trashed Kanye West's recent experimental album, 808s & Heartbreak, can tell you.

It may sound cruel, but many of Morrissey's fans have loved him for the same reasons Italian musical audiences once loved the castrati (i.e. circumcised choir singers). Those eunuchs' sexual underdevelopment helped them hit the high notes, while Morrissey's sexual underdevelopment gave him a unique perspective.

Purity and innocence were such odd qualities for a rock star that we couldn't help but pay attention. His songwriting, characterized by reflections on misery and unrequited love, spoke to the virgin in all of us. Not getting any – if, in fact, he was asexual as he claimed – made him both a freak show and a prophet.

But all that changed with his 2006 statement in the British press that he was no longer celibate. That same year, another interviewer claimed he had even "hinted at a late-blooming sex life."

No one knew when he stopped being celibate, or with whom. But his sexual awakening seems to have coincided with artistic changes. Exhibit A is Years of Refusal, his first studio album since 2006's Ringleader of the Tormentors. The sleeve image for the work's first single, "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris," features him and his band completely nude, save for 7-inch records concealing their units. Adjusting his hair with a suave look on his face, Morrissey seems especially, um, cocky.

Then there are the album's songs, which reflect an evolution in the way Moz talks about love. Sure, he's broached the subject in his music plenty of times before, but it was almost always in an abstract, oblique way, and almost never focusing in on genuine romantic interests.

But Years of Refusal speaks directly of love and coupling. The album's title, for starters, seems to indicate that a lonely time in his life has passed. On the cover, he's holding a smiling baby, perhaps suggesting a metaphorical rebirth.

On tracks like "That's How People Grow Up," meanwhile, he asserts, "Let me live before I die," adding that dreaming and idealizing weren't working for him: "I was wasting my time/Praying for love/For a love that never comes from someone who does not exist/And that's how people grow up."

"Sorry Doesn't Help" and "All You Need Is Me" concern dysfunctional and co-dependent relationships, with lines from the latter like, "You don't like me but you love me/Either way you're wrong/You're gonna miss me when I'm gone." "One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell" speaks to the perils of mistreating your partner: "Always be careful when you abuse the one you love/The hour or the day no one can tell/But one day goodbye will be farewell/And you will never see the one you love again."

As always, there's ambiguity in these lyrics, and Morrissey is apparently still finding plenty to be tortured about (even if he's getting some). But the first-person protagonist in these songs appears to be at least open to love and normal romantic relationships, which is something new for the artist.

That evolution, however, has been harshly criticized by some British music writers. "The final chances the man ever had of getting back on track and producing decent material were washed away when he started getting laid a few years ago and his muse stopped being emotionally stunted adolescence and willful offensiveness," wrote blogger Dom Passantino.

"As Morrissey adjusts his quiff, you can only exhale a long, deep and regretful sigh," added Guardian music blogger Paul Flynn regarding the "Paris" photo. "The day that the man who once defined iconographic sleeve art takes visual cues from the Red Hot Chili Peppers is the day the music died. Or at least took a long snooze with some prescription tranquilisers ... ."

In this critic's opinion, however, Morrissey's sexual evolution has benefitted his music. We've already heard his sexually stunted routine a hundred times before, for one thing, so it's nice to hear something different. And in terms of mere spectacle, watching an articulate musician essentially enter puberty at middle age is well worth the price of admission.

Let's just hope he doesn't get too much more comfortable with himself, at least as far as photo shoots are concerned.