WATCH: David Bowie’s Haunting “I Can’t Give Everything Away” Gets an Equally Haunting Animated Video
★'s third single is a song about everything.
It’s been three months since David Bowie slipped back into the stardust, leaving us to grapple with a legacy made more complicated with the release of his swan song, ★. Bowie’s final album rollout was carefully choreographed around his illness and death, which meant that, while he gave us one of the most stunning artistic statements in memory, it required him to keep his suffering private.
It’s a harrowing thought and a particularly strange form of self-sacrifice, though certainly a valid one. And it’s hard not to wonder whether that scenario figures into the lyrics of “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” which Bowie’s estate released as a single today with an accompanying lyric video designed by ★ cover artist Jonathan Barnbrook. “I know something is very wrong,” Bowie sings in the song’s opening moments. “The post returns for prodigal sons.” The reference to the “prodigal son” is one of many biblical allusions scattered throughout ★, and it concerns Christ’s parable of the wayward heir who asks for his inheritance before his father’s death and squanders it all, only to return home in shame begging for forgiveness, which he then receives. Later, shortly before he makes his famous declaration concerning the rich, camels, and the eye of a needle, Christ will tell another seeker that, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he must sell all that he owns and give it to the poor—he must give everything away.
Regardless of whether Bowie’s actual understanding of the cosmos was Christian or not, the message he’s delivering from the precipice of death rings in loud and frightening notes: is it enough to give of yourself artistically? Though he gave us the gift of ★ (and the forty-plus-year career that preceded it), should he have given us himself instead? Would mercy and comfort have greeted him in life if he’d asked for it?
Speculations, sure; we don’t really know what Bowie was thinking, which is part of ★‘s posthumous power. But as you watch Barnbrook’s “EVERYTHING”s multiply into infinitesimally small building blocks of static, gazing in wonder seems like the only appropriate way to react.