"The New Pollution" is one of Beck's hit singles from his 1996 album, Odelay
Beck was once asked what the new pollution was. His reply, "Human radios, sex with machines, mad eunuchs." Cryptic, but it makes a little sense. He is observing that in modern times, technology and information can drive you mad. It's everywhere, bombarding your senses.
The woman he is singing about in the song, then, is admirably unaffected by the new pollution, and somehow remains pure. Beck himself called it a "love song," and surely there's some admiration, if not actual love throughout the lyrics. It is a great way to frame his point about modern information.
In Rolling Stone
in 2008, it was written that Beck was "trying to evoke the Sixties glamour of femme fatales from Nico to Brigitte Bardot" in the line about having a cigarette on each arm. The ability to "throw her troubles to the dyin' embers" is admirable. The image of her being a boat alone in a "stripmine ocean" is wonderful. There's something very comforting in that, if at the same time, slightly dangerous. This is a slanted, but effective, portrait of a femme fatale.
"The New Pollution" is an amazing song, and Beck seems quite proud of it: "...a song like 'The New Pollution,' I mean, pollution, it's a presence in our lives. And isn't it interesting to use a word like that-something with such horrible connotations-in the context of a love song? That's where you create friction. That's where you can start to get someplace where you aren't dealing in the banalities of everyday, pedestrian rock lyrics. Not that I mean to be snobby about it, I can appreciate the good ol' song, and I still like to write that way sometimes." It's interesting to note that Beck uses this type of contrast often, including songs like "Asshole
" or "Sweet Sunshine
Integral to the song's core is the sublime sax sample. It makes the song what it is. More generally, Beck calls the song "inverted funk." He explains, "Some of the other songs are a little bit too loose. We had to pull in the reins, make it a little more tight, bring in the Mormon feel. Mormons are funky."
Played live 402 times:
July 16, 1996July 21, 1996July 24, 1996July 26, 1996August 28, 1996August 31, 1996September 2, 1996September 20, 1996September 21, 1996September 28, 1996
...and 392 more
Earliest known live version: July 16, 1996
Latest known live version: December 10, 2016
As one of his big hits, "The New Pollution" has thrived on stage since it came out in 1996. The only times it does not show up is when Beck is playing acoustic gigs, but when Beck has a band, he will most likely play the song regularly.
1996-1997 Odelay tours
Most live versions of "The New Pollution" throughout the Odelay
tour are pretty cool (though some could get a bit sloppy). It's got a fast funky groove that doesn't stop or change, it's just sort of relentless. Joey Waronker turns out to be the main leader of the song on drums. A lead electric guitar plays a cool intro to the song, and the verses are very drum/bass minimalistic. Keyboard and sax licks/samples float in and out of the song. Beck also took to using a whip ("like a whipcrack sending me shivers") on stage during the song. Later in the Odelay
tour, as Beck picked up his own horn section, they became even more a focus of the song's performance. A personal favorite, and very unique, version was on September 2, 1996. One of the speakers goes out or something, because all of the keyboards and guitars seem to vanish. Joey Waronker makes up for it by drumming like mad.
1998-1999 Mutations tours
After the Odelay
tours, "The New Pollution" was still regularly rocked. One of Beck's best tours was the short one in May/June, 1998. On June 6, 1998, they kick off a great version with a little Color-Me-Badd-like singalong: "I'm about to rock a beat that's never been rocked before, baby! I'm about to kick some rhymes that have never been rhymed before, darling! I'm about to . . . what am I about to do? . . . I'm about to flex some muscles that have never been flexed before, baby! I'm about to freak some freaks that ain't never been freaked before, darling!"
In April, 1999, on the Mutations
tour of Japan, "The New Pollution" performances are definitely hot, and some of the best ever. DJ Swamp gets to scratch a lot, Joey Waronker's drumming is incredible, and Roger Manning's keyboard solo is stellar. It all adds up, to a controlled, but hectic, masterpiece.
2000-2001 Vultures tours
And of course "The New Pollution" was still being performed very frequently throughout the Vultures
tours (it was played at bascially every show). It almost always has that sparkle to it, which is certainly not the case with every performance of every song. It sounds a little different with the new fuller band (i.e., new drummer, new guitarist, Brass Menagerie, back-up singers), when compared with the Odelay
2002 Flaming Lips version
As said above, the only times Beck doesn't play "The New Pollution" are acoustic-driven shows. August 2002 and April 2003 were solo acoustic tours, and he did not play that then. In between, he toured with The Flaming Lips though, and they did. They began by doing "The New Pollution" together at their first eight shows. Initially, it was Devo-y, slightly spacey version. But after dropping that, they returned to it a month later with a totally new version, sped-up quite fast! They dug this new arrangement so much that they even played it on KCRW, and continued with it until the tour ended. At the show on November 25 2002, Beck called it "The Flaming Lips' version" of the song, explaining that initially they couldn't really find the groove of the song until they sped it up.
2003 Sea Change band tour
Beck played another new arrangement of "The New Pollution" in Australia in March 2003. Hard to really explain because the bootleg I have does not have the greatest sound quality. However, it sounds interesting, maybe somewhat more new wave. Perhaps Beck's classic band borrowed from The Flaming Lips version, adapting it to suit their interests a little better.
This arrangement continued through the summer of 2003 as well: slightly faster, more new wave-y.
2005 Guero tour
Beck played about 55 shows in 2005 behind Guero
, and "The New Pollution" was played at roughly half of them. It was never a highlight of note to me, probably because at this point, playing it so straight is fairly uninteresting.
2006-2007 Info tour
Beck did around 70 shows on the Information
tours, but "The New Pollution" was only played around 20 times. There were also a few more at the end of 2007 when Beck went to play in South America, opening for The Police.
2008-2009 Modern Guilt tour
Similar to 2006-2007, Beck only played "The New Pollution" occasionally on the Modern Guilt
tours. It shows up 12 times out of around 50 shows.
2011-2013 pre-Morning Phase tour
Beck took a few years off the road here, but did a couple of gigs in 2011 and a couple of legs in 2012 and 2013, sort of as a nostalgic return. "The New Pollution" was not at all of these, but it did show up twice in 2011, and then like 8 of the 15 shows in 2012. He did not do it in 2013.
2014 Morning Phase tours
Beck played "The New Pollution" pretty regularly on the Morning Phase tours. He did not play it on the first leg, nor the last leg; in between, it was at 32 of the 38 shows. However, it was a mostly exact copy of the studio recording, and though energetic, I cannot say it was really remotely interesting.
2015-2016 post-Morning Phase tours
Beck continues to occasionally tour, 30 shows in each 2015 and 2016. In 2015, Beck did it half the time, but in 2016, "The New Pollution" was around at almost every show.