Across The Smiths’ four studio albums and three singles/b-side compilations, the band has carved out and perfected a niche for themselves, becoming titans of '80s alternative and one of the most influential bands of all time.
The band’s “niche” was founded on guitarist Johnny Marr’s pop sensibilities, leading to infectious guitar lines, as well as lyricist/vocalist Morrissey’s angsty and dramatic lyrical style. Morrissey wrote about topics such as depression, love and feeling lost. While these topics were not new to music at this time, the way he wrote about them was – not to mention, he was very upfront with the theme of homosexuality in his songs.
A prime example of this is in their first single, “Hand In Glove,” which features lyrics that pretty heavily imply the gloomy “love song” is about a same-sex lover. “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” is a prime example of Morrissey’s exemplary lyrical style. It is perhaps the most extreme example of his expressions of melancholy and affection. The two moods swirl together to create a melodrama that stands out among a discography full of dramatization. It is intimate and beautiful, a true testimony to love (or friendship, should you read it that way), but also a devastating and tortured glimpse into the troubled machinations of a tragic soul.
The song achieves this diverse range of emotion and intensity by rotating between gentle (relatively) verses and passionate choruses. While the music is steady, the hotheadedness of the lyrics is not. Verse one begins with “Take me out tonight,” a simple request that is expanded on throughout the verse. The song sees the narrator asking someone to help them get away from their home, as their home life is dysfunctional (“Please don't drop me home / Because it's not my home, it's their home / And I'm welcome no more,” a reference to homophobia perhaps).
However, as soon as the verse is over, the narrator erupts: “And if a double-decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” The chorus sees the narrator bargaining in an almost cosmic sense for a moment of intimacy with their friend. The narrator is truly desperate for anything resembling closeness. Their morbid view of the world causes them to view dying with someone as the ultimate act of love. This illustrates that this character has a warped sense of love, but it more importantly shows that they are in a dark place, and in need of something greater.
This is perhaps something they cannot get from someone else, try as they might. The capriciousness associated with a request to die with someone who one is in love with would bring up heavy implications that the narrator of this song is young, and if not then at least immature. They are in search of a life-saving affection, but love is not supposed to be life-saving, it is supposed to be life-affirming. With an attitude like our narrator’s, one is doomed from the start (until they grow up or change). This is the brilliance of “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” as it is a plea for the insatiable thirst for love to be satiated. It is by definition impossible, making the song all that more romantic and angsty at once.
There is another moment of tenderness that occurs during the second verse that could heavily make the argument that this is in its own twisted way a love song, rather than a dedication to a friendship. Morrissey croons, “And in the darkened underpass / I thought ‘Oh God, my chance has come at last / But then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn't ask.” The narrator is clearly seeking to take their relationship with the person driving to the next level. The tenderness of this moment juxtaposes the fervid choruses, with their brutal and unhealthy depiction of desire.
This is a simple play at a chance for love, rather than an all-consuming bargain for a last chance at a fulfilling life. The song is once again tethered to the earth as a beautiful demonstration of the need for love in the face of hardship. The narrator again reflects on their lack of a home, and then the chorus starts up again in all its intensity.
The song ends with an outro in which the title of the song is finally uttered in repetition: “Oh, there is a light and it never goes out” on repeat as the song comes to a close. There are countless possible interpretations of what this could mean in the context of the song. My favorite is that the light refers to the person the narrator is singing about. The narrator leads an apparently dismal life, plagued with loneliness and rejection. The light of their life is this person who has taken them out of this bleak situation, if only for one night.
The narrator is clearly pretty fond of this person, as they think dying beside them would improve things. This person is very special, even if the narrator has a dysfunctional view of them. The song is up to this point a reflection on this dysfunction, a paradox between real love and compulsive obsession. However, these fading moments give us a glimpse again into the “real love” side of things. The narrator is enjoying the light of their loved one, soaking it in and enjoying this moment in their life, even if it doesn’t last. It emits the healing power of love into the listener, and for a moment none of the other darkness of the song matters.
It doesn’t matter if the characters are (or ever will be) lovers, or if they are just friends. It doesn’t matter that the narrator is unwell. All that matters is these two people driving in a car together at night and enjoying each other’s company. It’s human, it’s loving and it’s beautiful.
This is what The Smiths do best. They capture an overwhelming angst right up next to a gorgeous-yet-basic human feeling, and play not against but with each other in a way that captures something unique. Here they have captured a passionate (even if unhealthy) moment of intimacy, a cry that any human who has ever been young and in love can relate to.