"The Only Thing" as written by and Sufjan Stevens....
The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders, Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all

Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they're found
In a veil of great surprises I wonder did you love me at all?

The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm
Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark
Signs and wonders, water stain writing the wall
Daniel's message, blood of the moon on us all

Do I care if I despise this, nothing else matters, I know
In a veil of great disguises, how do I live with your ghost?

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow

The only reason why I continue at all
Faith in reason, I wasted my life playing dumb
Signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark
Blind faith, God's grace, nothing else left to impart

Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they're found
In a veil of great surprises, hold to my head till I drown
Should I tear my eyes out now, before I see too much?
Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow

Lyrics submitted by Akaforty

"The Only Thing" as written by Sufjan Stevens

Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

The Only Thing song meanings
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  • +4
    My InterpretationThis song is probably the most beautiful and sorrowful song ever written and I have a lot of love for it.

    The first stanza describes a suicide that the speaker imagines himself committing. Sometimes, his mind wanders and he fantasizes about intentionally crashing his car to end his life. BUT, he then references the myth of Medusa and Perseus, and how, in his triumph, Perseus was eventually immortalized in the stars with his lover Andromeda. The speaker refrains from suicide because he hopes that he may one day make it into heaven and be immortalized with his lost lover in the same way.

    The second stanza reverts back to his battle with suicidal thoughts. He wonders if it even matters whether or not he lives, or more importantly, where he goes when he dies. In the "veil of great surprises", which I believe is a symbol for fates role in what we perceive to be chance, he wonders if his lover truly loved him, or whether they just served as a pawn in the greater scheme of things.

    The third stanza introduces an alternate, yet highly specific suicidal fantasy, indicating that the speaker is somewhat invested in it. It is now more of an active thought than a daydream. He then references the book of Daniel, which prophecizes an apocalyptic scenario. Through this we can infer that the speaker feels like it is the end of his world.

    He goes on to reference the illusion of coincidence and struggles to "live with" the haunting memories of an impermanent figure in his life.

    He then ask himself if he should harm himself in ways that would help him erase his pain. Should he tear his eyes out so that he doesn't hav to face his lover's absence? Should he tear his heart out so that he doesn't feel it? He doesn't know

    The next stanza focuses on faith, or lack thereof, in the face of tradgedy. From what we can gather, despite all his greif, the speaker has found reasons to hold onto his faith, likely because he can now recognize its role in destiny.

    His tone then shifts back into his previous despair. He wants to be drowned for a chance to reconnect with his lost loved one. He wants to remove his sight before he finds another reason to live. He wants to remove his arms so that he can avoid feeling the physical emptiness of his lover's absence. He ends with a series of questions, which implies that he remains unresolved in his current state.

    Tragic and beautiful.

    swampbabyon April 11, 2016   Link
  • +3
    General CommentBest song on the album in my opinion. For now. I've listened to this album everyday for the last few weeks and my knees buckle and I get shivers everytime. Stunningly beautiful. Only Sufjan is capable of this. Hope and despair and brutal honesty all wrapped up in a delicate song that could well be both a hymn or lullaby. The middle of the song, when it quiets and he shifts up an octave, then sings "I wanna save you from your sorrow." and the little flourish comes in... shivers every single time. Then he doubles up the vocals and instruments for the final verse. Just about perfect.
    iamnothing2uon March 28, 2015   Link
  • +3
    My Opinionthis is the one song that resembles back in his widows in paradise era
    lyrillon April 18, 2015   Link
  • +2
    General CommentI think this song is about dealing with the grief after the death of a loved 1, and contemplating suicide.

    The veil he speaks of is the veil between life and death.
    Cyberghoston April 15, 2015   Link
  • +1
    My InterpretationThe song is obviously about grief after the loss of his mother. There are many allusions in the song that are worth picking part.

    "Signs and wonders, Perseus aligned with the skull
    Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all"

    Signs and wonders is a common phrase you'll see in the Gospels, and refer to the miraculous healings that Jesus performed yet also the vanity of humans that seek after them.

    The classic myth of Perseus and Medusa ends with Perseus decapitating Medusa at the neck. A very gruesome death, yet out of the dead Medusa sprang pegasus which is known to be beautiful and all white. I take this to be a symbol of hope out of suffering, or a rebirth.

    "Do I care if I survive this, bury the dead where they’re found"

    This reminded me of Luke 9:59-60 where Jesus told a man who wanted to bury his father to "let the dead bury their own dead". To me, burying the dead where they're found is an allusion to death no longer being a sacred or significant occurrence (leading to an indifference towards self-preservation).

    "In a veil of great surprises"

    As mentioned in another comment the line between life and death is often characterised as a veil. It is a very thin barrier, yet you can't see beyond it. I also think 'great surprises' refers to how sudden and surprising someone crossing the veil can be given the mundane routine much of our lives is focused on.

    " Signs and wonders, water stain writing the wall
    Daniel’s message, blood of the moon on us all"

    The writing on the wall is a common phrase denoting doom, and it comes from the book of Daniel chapter 5. Belshazzar was feasting in a temple when a hand wrote a message on the wall. Daniel interpreted it to the King: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin. Mene, loosely translated, means that God has numbered your days. Tekel is that you have been judged and found wanting. It's part of the human condition that everyone's days are numbered, and many of us are struggling to not waste them.

    I believe the blood moon is an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus, as that is one of the natural events that was meant to occur at that time. Both the blood moon and writing on the walls are again examples of signs and wonders, but this time very dark signs.

    " Should I tear my eyes out now?
    Everything I see returns to you somehow
    Should I tear my heart out now?
    Everything I feel returns to you somehow"

    Beautiful lines, and it reminds me strongly of Mark 9:43-47 where Jesus tells his followers that if a part of your body causes you sin / do evil / act unethically (your eye, your hand, your foot) it is better to cut it off than commit sin. I think the general idea here is that when in extreme pain the mind thinks of extreme solutions, which ties back to thoughts about suicide elsewhere in the song.

    " Signs and wonders, sea lion caves in the dark"

    There's a sea lion cave in Oregon, he probably visited there and it left an impression on him. Natural wonders like a sea lion cave will enrich a person who learns to appreciate it, and I can certainly see them helping someone out of grief.
    tjrnealon July 17, 2017   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThe tear my eyes out/tear my heart out thing is definitely a reference to the song "today" by the smashing pumpkins.
    Gandalf the Pinkon February 08, 2017   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI appreciate the reference to the sea lion caves (which are near Florence, Oregon). I'm guessing Carrie and Lowell took Sufjan and his siblings to see them during the summers they spent with them in Eugene. That is something you would definitely remember from your childhood, a true "wonder" that makes life worth living.
    Waimeaon April 20, 2018   Link
  • 0
    My InterpretationI think the key line is "I want to save you from your sorrow."

    This is the one line that stands out from the rest of the song, and which might stand in as 'The Only Thing [that keeps him from ending it all].' It is a purpose, a reason to go on. The strange thing is that it seems the one he wants to save from their sorrows is already dead ("How do I live with your ghost?"), beyond saving, which is why the line stands out. It is paradoxical, the paradox the song hinges on: how could you save someone who is already gone (perhaps even by suicide?) from their sorrow?

    Its as if now the sorrow is his, and if he cannot find a way to live, then the sorrow wins. To give up himself, means not only giving up on his own pursuit of way through sorrow, but affirms the essential truth of the other's sorrow, and this is what he cannot bear.

    I think the profound idea in this song is that even when our own suffering is overwhelming, the suffering of others remains a reason to seek the light. And somehow that the suffering of others is more important than our own suffering, and gives us a mutual reason to go on living together, and doing our best for each other.
    nathan1151on January 20, 2019   Link

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