OF all the exquisite pains, realising your beloved musical hero has feet covered in clay (or perhaps something nastier) is one of the worst. As a singer, I’ve had Frank Sinatra in my head – and throat – since my dad crooned me to sleep. In my 20s and 30s, I became a Sinatra musical nerd, digging out his more obscure grandiosities. But in the last decade, biography by biography, I’ve been on the verge of detaching from him entirely.

A spoiled, insecure, brutal, tribal little bully, would be my character judgement. Even if this mindset drives his aesthetic – flipping from big-band braggadocio, to strings-laden please-forgive-me ballad – can I still be bothered, given the operatic nastiness of the man? Today (and it varies daily), just about.

So, I have considerable reserves of sympathy for fans of Steven Patrick Morrissey, whether as a solo artist or in his heyday with the Smiths. Why, as Moby recently asked, won’t he “stop saying these weird and racist things?”

There is a vast generation of fans for whom the light cast by Morrissey and the Smiths will never go out. In the 1980s of Duran Duran and Dollar – of neon-lit, money-driven assertion – Morrissey occupied a completely different chunk of the spectrum. Self-obsessed but morally radical, glamorous but vegetarian, as witty as Wilde and as militant as Arthur Scargill.

My own bell wasn’t rung. However, it wasn’t hard to see why this handsome, homoerotic, anti-monarchist, retro-literate crooner transformed many lives, in the way that Bowie or Morrison had done for earlier generations.

But in the early 1990s, as many critics have noticed, Morrissey started to shake up his own kaleidoscope. Gradually, the curator of wistful images of 1960s northern kitchen-sink dramas has become an active advocate of the worst of English and British nationalism.

Last week, Morrissey spoke against the “shocking treatment of Tommy Robinson”, the former leader of the English Defence League currently in jail for contempt of court. He also thinks Brexit was “magnificent” and likes Nigel Farage “a great deal … his views are quite logical”.

Morrissey also managed a take on the recent Ukip leadership race, questioning whether it had been rigged against an anti-Islamic candidate, Anne Marie Waters. Her new party, For Britain, has been endorsed by the singer as “the only British political party that can safeguard our security”.

Morrissey has also redirected his zeal for vegetarianism against ethnicities and religions. For their record on animal cruelty, he called the Chinese a “subspecies”. A recent blog post claimed halal was “evil” and that “halal slaughter requires certification that can only be given by supporters of Isis”.

The catalogue of horrors continues in recent interviews. He said:“When someone calls you racist, what they are saying is ‘hmm, you actually have a point, and I don’t know how to answer it, so perhaps if I distract you by calling you a bigot we’ll both forget how enlightened your comment was’.”

What to do? Perhaps one thing to be grateful for is that all this appears at the fag end of Morrissey’s career. Coming from the mouth of an incandescent young icon of the moment, it might be far more dangerous stuff.

This is where we were in 1976 – when the National Front was at its height, and David Bowie was giving coke-fuelled quotes like: “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. I mean, fascist in its true sense, not Nazi. After all, fascism is really nationalism. In a sense, it is a very pure form of communism.”

Bowie rehabbed himself relentlessly after that moment, leaving the Earth two years ago in a state of critical beatitude. Instead, Morrissey actively digs his grave ever more vigorously. “The left has become right wing and the right wing has become left – a complete switch,” he recently complained. “This is a very unhappy modern Britain.”

You can begin to divine, by studying his corpus, why Morrissey has tumbled down this narrow, fetid channel. Reading his 2014 autobiography – apart from the tedious stretches of chart position lists, lengthy court cases and score-settlings – reminds you of the mechanics behind his initial glory. But also of the time-bombs lying in wait.

Morrissey believes he is a genius, a dandy set apart. Yet he also wants to be permanently entangled in his self-consciously ordinary, working-class roots (he did, after all, call his band “The Smiths”). The famous record covers he designed were based, he writes, “on images that were the opposite of glamour”, but had “enough heart and desire pumped into them to show ordinariness as an instrument of power”.

Yet what happens when your image of “ordinariness” proves to be a fetish of a particular historical moment – which is a monochrome and monocultural sixties fantasy? There were early clues about how ultimately impoverished Morrissey’s view of “nation” – sometimes Britain, mostly England – might be. Bengali in Platforms, from 1988, had the line: “Shelve your western plans, life is tough enough when you belong here.”

It’s tempting to connect the worsening malfunction of Morrissey’s patriotic code to the wider travails of English identity. A recent report from the London School of Economics explored what factors would predict a Leave vote. Way ahead of class or urban geography, the strongest predictor was whether someone proclaimed “a positive English identity”.

It was a combination of economic self-determination and anti-immigration anxiety that got the Leave vote over the line. And the second half of Morrissey’s lyric – life is tough enough when you belong here – could be a perfect subtitle to Take Back Control.

So do we consign Morrissey to the critical flames? One pundit recently pleaded with his former Smiths partner, guitarist Johnny Marr, to do the same to Morrissey as he once did to David Cameron – which was to ban him from liking The Smiths.

Marr’s response was characteristically elegant. “I don’t really think you can change people’s relationship with The Smiths’ songs. The songs are what they are.” Most songwriters know that their best work has a much bigger resonance than any of their conscious intentions.

There’s one burning line that I can remember from The Smiths’ Still Ill: “England is mine/it owes me a living”. Self-interestedly – and for the sake of a good and constructive neighbour – Scots may well wish for an England that could support hordes of flower-wielding, Wilde-quoting, free-loving eccentrics.

It’s hard to include the later Morrissey even within his own early co-ordinates (which is what causes his fans such grief). But the opportunity is always open for artists to evoke a happy, open and diverse English nation. What would an English Proclaimers look and sound like? We should finally remember, of course, that wilful artists will always, in the end, test their poor fans to distraction. That’s the job. And no matter his latest eruption, that remains Morrissey’s too.