The Informer


The Informer.

Starting as a reworking/development of the instrumental “Plan,” “The Informer” wound up with a dozen vocal tracks (all Bowie) and a lyric possibly inspired by Martin McDonagh’s black comedy In Bruges. In the latter, two Irish killers are hiding out in Belgium after a hit goes wrong; their refuge Bruges soon reveals itself as a Dantean purgatory, for both them and their boss (who shows up in the third act to wreak havoc).*

The verse lyric (built on strides between C major and a fluctuating G major (from a suspended fourth back to the major chord)) seems written for Colin Farrell’s character in the film, a neophyte hitman whose debut assignment is to dispatch a priest, with a young boy winding up in the crossfire. “I’ll be telling myself…that you brought it on yourself” (or see later in the bridge, “you were the prime assignment/ so help me Christ“).

By the last verse, Bowie’s character study has given way to broader speculation/gripes about God, Satan, Christianity in general (there’s even a U2 dig in the last verse: “I still don’t know/what we were looking for“), with Bowie in his well-worn role of addressing an absent God like a lover to be abandoned or a false friend that he’s cutting. It’s “Word on a Wing” four decades on, its singer having grown ever more embittered and defensive over the years.

As with the other Next Day Extra tracks, there’s the mandatory dose of self-reference: see the “Satellite of Love” backing vocal line or how the dramatic build in the bridge calls back to the climax of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Yet with its crackling, swooshing guitar atmospherics, brusque rhythm section, its backing vocal tracks neatly arranged like a set of miniatures, the compression and harsh brightness of the mix, “The Informer” seems like the end of a long run. It’s the feel of Heathen and Reality pushed to the point of exhaustion, with Bowie having a last go in a played-out style. He pulls it off with aplomb, but in retrospect it was the closing number of Bowie’s millennial show, with the lead actor already plotting to tear down the set and bring in a new pit orchestra.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra. Credits: “Crayon to Crayon” for some musical finds & I believe it was commenter “Dave L” who first noticed the In Bruges connection.

* Not even the first possible reference to Bruges in a Bowie song, as the Georges Rodenbach line in “Dancing Out in Space” could tie to Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte (which is very much the Bruges of McDonagh’s film).

Various business: Last weekend for the poll. As of this writing (Thurs. morning), 220 ballots are in and the top 2 songs are TIED, people. So vote if you haven’t already. Deadline is 8 PM EST, Monday 7 December. Poll results will be the week of 14 December: I’ll likely space the song winners out over a couple of days, and may do the top 100 instead of top 50. We’ll see.

Top: “Faungg,” “Bruges, Belgium,” 2011.

27 Responses to The Informer

  1. Galdo says:

    I would never see this as a door shutting. Nice call. I don’t like the song that much, but I do like the piano.

  2. gcreptile says:

    Indeed, the end of an era that has run all out of gas. All guitar-rich swagger and bleak lyrics, with underdeveloped melody and very standard instrumentation.

  3. david says:

    I adore this track-the strongest cut I feel on the Extra release, and one which should have supplanted any of the weaker tracks on TND.

    Also notable because it shares the title with another older movie, from 1935, this time directed by John Ford, which also centers around an Irish protagonist- Gypo Nolan, a rebel from the IRA who rats out his friend for a bounty. It’s a beautifully dark movie for the period, and along with the excellent In Bruges, may have also influenced Bowie’s palette.

  4. Dave L says:

    Nice write up as usual. I quite like the song, though my affection is tempered by the lyrics (once again on this album). I have a difficult time empathizing with an assassin who suddenly has a conscience; nor do I buy that as a literary conceit (seems like one of those Hollywood tropes, like henchmen who have no lives of their own, etc.). But I find the music moving on this song, even if the emotions it conjures don’t jibe with the lyrics for me.

  5. Ramzi says:

    Love the dual meaning of “so help me Christ”. Kanye West announced his forthcoming album as “So Help Me God” but has since changed the name, which is a pity.

    It may sound too much like others from the 02-13 era but I’m a sucker for that era. I like it a lot. My second favourite of the extras just behind So She.

  6. Maj says:

    The lyrics seemed a bit blah to me until I saw In Bruges and yeah I know where he was coming from but can’t say he was particularly elegant or imaginative about it. But I get it now.

    I do like the song as a whole though, maybe my fave of the extras or one of the top 3 or so. Some nice um, chords.

  7. I absolutely love this song but it’s so dense. No dynamics at all. It’s over compressed as a track, then this over the top vocal shouts at you. And then the arrangement tries to build and build. It just ends up a tiring mess. It feels like they’ve tried to make it a Word on a wing and in theory it succeeds but it just ends up very, very wearying to the ear.

    Imagine this song in the style of It’s no game 2….

  8. SoooTrypticon says:

    Love this song. Good call Chris on it actually being the “closer.” It’s that way for me on my Bowie top 30 list, (I’ll be sending it shortly).

    The Bruges connection works less for me than the actual film, “The Informer,” (as mentioned by David above). Using that title, this song seems like a direct retread of Bowie’s other film titled songs. However, the lyrics are vague enough that they can technically work with any film involving these tropes.

    Chris, did you dig up any connections between “So Lonely” and this song? Odd that he’d write about assassins twice, and give a look at two different perspectives…

    A bit of catch up on your other posts:
    -Loved your “Rocket man” piece. Similar sentiments here, although I still wish it, and perhaps “Informer” had made it onto the album itself.

    -Blackstar. Chris, I think you may have tapped into something when you wrote your “Disco King” entry. Blackstar is a bit of a Bowie Rosetta Stone, isn’t it? I could see it slotting quite perfectly into your imagined performance… combining unused bits of Sigma, Ziggy, Blacktie and Outside. (Are those “Leet” soldier gunshots I hear buried in the mix?). On the subject of Ziggy/Blackstar… Wasn’t Ziggy supposed to be destroyed by beings from a black-hole, or beings actually composed of black-holes?

    Certainly, “something happened on the day he died.”

    • BenJ says:

      It’s not actually the closer, though. Chris has said he’s doing an entry on “Heat.” Don’t know if he’s doing anything on “Reflektor”, the Nothing Has Changed tracks and so on, but there’s at least one more coming up.

      • col1234 says:

        Yes Heat is coming. Soonish.

        Reflektor already covered on the Wake Up entry.

        And if by Nothing Has Changed songs you mean “Sue” that’s coming in Jan.

        So yes not done yet.

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        Not a literal closer, no- but for the period, seems like a proper send off. I actually prefer this one to “Feel So Lonely.”

        Chris, I’m excited about your take on “Heat.” There’s a lot to unpack there. (p.s. Another holiday, and another round of gifting your first volume. I hope it’s treating you well)

        A quick hat-tip to Wytchcroft in the Blackstar thread. I didn’t know the possible “black hole kids” connection had already been mentioned. Occult minds think alike.

  9. Anonymous says:

    An excellent analysis and certainly the closing of a particular chapter on this blog, as we’ll soon move on to the prologue to Blackstar. About the movie inspiration: it always struck me that both “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” and (to a lesser extent) “The Informer” were Bowie’s reflections upon the celebrated German film The Lives of Others (2006), particularly given that Bowie was in a Berlin-inspired mood on TND.

  10. BenJ says:

    I think this is my favorite of the TND Extra tracks. The “flying saucer” synth sounds are a lot of fun. I like the grimy specificity of the lyrics as well, the pool of blood and all that.

  11. Momus says:

    1. In one of his most interesting late-70s interviews, Bowie explains how he sometimes used cut-ups to generate a third perspective. I’m quoting from memory: “Take one cup of subject-matter… Let’s say it’s the Berlin wall. I’ll write one paragraph from the point of view of people on the West side, and another from the East. Then I’ll cut those paragraphs up and a third point of view will start to emerge.”

    2. I find this fascinating, because it’s not just using cut-ups to randomise imagery. It’s actually a way of creating a new persona, one with a perhaps-impossible perspective, a perhaps-dangerous perspective on the topic at hand. Rather than creating a new character who could embody things Bowie was interested in thinking about, he could create a new view — almost a drone’s eye-view — on a topic. “I am a camera,” as Isherwood put it.

    3. The Informer is a song about an undercover hitman. We’ve already noted how many Next Day songs seem to be about assassins, almost as if the songs are offcuts from a secret musical. I haven’t seen In Bruges (although my sister’s husband worked on the film, as it happens, shooting the production stills), but to me this song recalls something like Day of the Jackal, the 1973 Edward Fox vehicle about an assassination attempt on de Gaulle. But here the assassin is planning to kill some figurehead of popular culture, someone who has betrayed the Baby Boom generation: “I still don’t know what we were looking for, but it wasn’t you”.

    4. When you combine that with the references to Rock’n’Roll Suicide and Satellite of Love, you get an odd suggestion: perhaps Bowie is singing about himself, from the point of view of someone disgusted or disillusioned with his figurehead role? Perhaps this is one of those cut-up songs where there was a paragraph from a Bowie point of view, then a paragraph from an anti-Bowie point of view, and a scenario emerged which revisited that early 1970s Bowie obsession, the idea of a performer being shot on stage?

    5. It’s interesting that one of the lyrics here references John Braine’s 1957 novel Room at the Top, which was also the third title mentioned in the list of his hundred favourite books that Bowie released to the press in late 2013. (Some lyric transcriptions say “rule at the top”, but it sounds more like “room” to me.) Room at the Top (the book and the 1959 film, which you can find on YouTube) is basically a moral tale about an ambitious working class man in late 1940s Britain who achieves everything he’s dreamed of, materially, and yet ends up tortured by the death (a death he’s partly responsible for) of the woman he loves. It’s an extended riff on Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

    6. The song seems to be an assassin’s death sentence passed on someone who’s betrayed a generation, sold out their aspirations, gone for gold over soul. We’re back in the same atmosphere — the exact same scenario, in fact — as You Feel So Lonely You Could Die: “Some night on the thriller’s street / Will come the silent gun / You’ve got a dangerous heart / You stole their trust, their moon, their sun / There’ll come the assassin’s needle on a crowded train…” And can it be a coincidence that both songs reference Rock’n’Roll Suicide?

    7. I know not everybody agreed with me at the time about You Feel So Lonely You Could Die being about Morrissey, but it is intriguing to think that The Next Day might — at least in some parallel world — be a disguised concept album about killing Moz. Actually, we don’t even need to be so specific: how about if we just say that a recurrent theme in late Bowie is that he’s not impressed by, and not responsible for, the artists he has paved the way for and made possible? We know that Lucy (ie Madonna) can’t dance, that the Pistols “couldn’t have been done without Dogs” (ie Diamond Dogs), that today’s stars are “sexless and unaroused”. Even in the newest song there’s this theme of “star eclipse”: “Something happened on the day he died… somebody else took his place”.

    8. So I think, from the widest perspective, this song is a dramatisation of the perennial question of success and succession. Bowie is thinking about what success might mean if there’s a disappointing succession, a poor continuation by shabby stars of stuff he’s started. The legacy. It would be upsetting to think that you would be eclipsed, but it would also be sad to think that everything would just collapse into bathos and karaoke. Into a black hole or starless darkness.

    9. The moral force of the song is undermined, for me, by the fact that the production is shiny, sheeny rock, with Gerry Leonard’s rather generic guitar crunching along. It starts like Starman but then becomes a bit Springsteeny, with good but almost self-parodic backing vocals, like a slowed-down Teenage Wildlife.

    10. Which reminds me, what was Teenage Wildlife about again? Oh yes, it was “advice to a younger version of myself”. The “new wave boys” come sweeping into view, but it’s just “the same old thing in brand new drag”. I guess success isn’t really success if you’re not keen on the succession. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall influence the whole world, and not much like what he sees?

    • MC says:

      Fascinating as always, Momus. The other figure who comes to mind when considering assassinated Baby Boom icons, is, of course, John Lennon. If The Informer is from the skewed perspective of a killer like Mark David Chapman, that’s quite an audacious gambit, given Bowie’s friendship with JL. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die perhaps offers the more expected reverse angle, with Chapman the object of DB’s bile. And interestingly, In Bruges has a scene where Colin Farrell punches out an ugly-American tourist, saying, “That’s for John Lennon.” (Ironically, the guy then turns out to be Canadian.)

    • BenJ says:

      This is a really good, meaty analysis.

      “Room at the top” is also a lyric from Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” followed by “But first you must learn how to smile as you kill.” Bowie covered that song with Tin Machine – if not well – and it’s interesting to find the phrase turning up in a song about killing.

    • Steven says:

      I have never adequately expressed — maybe it would be impossible adequately to express — just how much I appreciate Momus’s extremely insightful and illuminating thoughts on songs in this blog. This meditation is particularly valuable, I think. Great analysis, by Chris and by Momus, of a song I’d paid less attention to than I should have. Thanks so much to both!

  12. SoooTrypticon says:

    Agreed and agreed. The Chapman parallels are tempting on both accounts. The assassin does leave via a bathroom window, rather than coming in like the rumored Beatles groupie.

    The more I look back at the album though- I think about the title track.

    And the next day
    And the next
    And another day

    Upon release, it was widely received as a statement of moving forward. Moving on from the canon of “Heroes.”

    But it’s not really, is it? The collected songs about murder, and desperation. Assassins and assassins for assassins. The wondering as to who is really in Bowie’s sights when he’s writing.

    It’s all an endless loop. And a chilling one at that.

  13. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Like a lot of the TND stuff, Chris’s write-up and the subsequent comments are far more interesting than the song itself. That suggests that he had the ideas but lacked the means to realize those ideas in a musical form.

    Until very recently, I thought that was an indication that he didn’t’ really have it in him any more, but he’d earned the right to tinker away and enjoy himself. Recent events have shown I was completely wrong and that he really does still have it. My guess is that it was the familiar line-up of musicians that was holding him back. He’s always been at his best when he’s just a little out of his depth and he seems to need that challenge of being in unfamiliar musical territory to push his own ideas. The smart ones understand that you should never settle for less.

  14. MC says:

    Cryptic lyrics aside, The Informer is, with Like A Rocket Man, my favourite of The Next Day Extra tracks. Its progression always makes me think of something like New Angels Of Promise, but it’s fervent and unhinged in a way that takes me back to Scary Monsters and, yes, “Heroes.” To me, it’s no mere pastiche of peak Bowie, but something close to an equal. It’s scary and engaged, and it sounds like an artist fully committed and at the top of his game, like much of TND.

  15. Oedipal_Eye says:

    Just submitted my 30. Some very hard decisions.Looking forward to the results.

  16. crayontocrayon says:

    It’s clear now that Bowie spent his reclusive years as a hitman.
    My favourite of the extra tracks, it builds well but doesn’t quite scale the mountain. And while it lacks the delicacy of word on a wing the second half of the song deals with something a bit weightier and real than a lot of TND tracks which have a tendency towards character perspective (like the first half of the song)

  17. s.t. says:

    The hints of the old Bowie grandeur here are rendered inert by the dull arrangement, lackluster playing, and Visconti’s flat production. Sweeping majesty is rather hard to achieve via a “no-frills” approach.

  18. Norman Ball says:

    “I’ve got major questions/About the Lord above/About Satan below”

    More torn between the light and darkness. Blackstar resolves the ambiguity.

  19. Top 100 please! I predict “Heroes” narrowly over Life on Mars? in the song department.

  20. RamonaAstone says:

    WOW. I just realized this is one of the greatest David Bowie songs of all time. Using cold war imagery to discuss our relationship with God….fucking amazing. We’re in the role of some kind of spy shipped off to kill this great and mysterious regime leader of some distant, powerful country. But even the spy is fascinated with the cult surrounding this – what, “demagogue”?

    In the end, we all know what happens – “God is Dead.”

    I love Bowie.

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