Soul Of A Man
By: Beck Hansen

Written by: Beck Hansen

Versions:
  1. Soul Of A Man (2:36)
    Available on Modern Guilt.
    Credits
    Recorded at: Anonyme Studios
    Beck Hansen: Bass, Electric Piano, Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric), Producer, Tambourine, Vocals
    Drew Brown: Beats, Engineer
    Danger Mouse: Producer, Sounds
  2. Soul Of A Man (acoustic) (2:50)
    Available on Modern Guilt acoustic.
    Credits
    Bram Inscore: Cello
    Joey Waronker: Drums
    Beck Hansen: Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Acoustic), Vocals
    Brian Lebarton: Percussion
    Jessica Dobson: Vocals (Background)
 
Lyrics:
Soul Of A Man [Version (a)]:

Beat my bones against the wall
Staring down an empty hall
Deep down in a hollow log
Coming home like a letter bomb
Cold was the storm
That covered the night

Call the doctor, call the ghost
Put a fire into your bones
Sic a dog on all you know
Cut it loose before you go
Cold was the storm
That covered the night

What makes the soul the soul of a man?

Beat my bones against the wall
Put a fire and throw your ball [notes say "bank note on your bond"]
Gris-gris and a goldenrod
Deep down in a hollow log
Cold was the storm
That burned in the night

What makes the soul the soul of a man?
 
The Song:

Every once in awhile, Beck writes a song like "Soul Of A Man" in cruise control, full of blues references and favorite images.

I'll start with the phenomenal Blind Willie Johnson, who has a few songs show up in this. First, he has a song called "The Soul Of A Man": "I want somebody tell me / answer if you can! / I want somebody tell me what is the soul of a man?"

As did most of Blind Willie's songs, his words filtered down through the rest of the blues world, into rock and roll. But Beck clearly knew Blind Willie, as he has referenced his songs many times, even flat up covering more than a couple.

Regardless of the Blind Willie allusion, Beck's "Soul Of A Man" involves a lot of bluesy ideas, such as hollow logs, fires, bones, doctors, gris-gris (a voodoo amulet), and goldenrod (a medicinal flower). I mean, just listing these things and you can see what many of them have in common: cures.

The first verse has the singer feeling hollow, empty, unwelcome. The second verse presents the cures. How do I fix this, he wonders? Is a broken soul still a soul? If he could only get the answer: "what makes the soul the soul of a man?"

Blind Willie Johnson's song about the soul of a man emphasized its mysterious unknowability. "Someone answer me if you can!" Johnson implores. Beck similarly presents it as THE question. Nothing else matters, and the question lingers over the rest of the images. Beck has referred to this in different ways in many disparate songs: that underneath life/success/possessions, you're left with a soul that you have to contemplate and take care of. (See, "Strange Apparition" also, for example.)
 
Live:

Played live 135 times:
Earliest known live version: June 11, 2008
Latest known live version: December 10, 2016

"Soul Of A Man" has been one of Beck's live favorites since he released it.

2008-2009 Modern Guilt tour

Beck played "Soul Of A Man" 38 times out of 51 shows on the Modern Guilt tours of 2008-2009.

2012-2013 pre-Morning Phase tours

After a few years away, Beck returned to the road for a handful of tours in 2012 and 2013. "Soul Of A Man" took up fairly regular residence in the setlists of the time.

2014 Morning Phase tour

Beck performed "Soul Of A Man" quite regularly on his 2014 Morning Phase tours (39 out of 57 shows). This version was heavy! They had a cool industrial rumble mixed in with the blues guitar and punk energy. With four guitarists going for most of the tour, they were able to not only do justice to all the licks and riffs on the album, as well as build up the drama of the song. The album version can feel a little pale now, if you listen alongside these 2014 live takes. The band really beefed up the song, and maybe for the first time am I able to say that I dig this song totally.

2015-2016 post-Morning Phase tours

"Soul Of A Man" remains in the setlist as of the end of 2016.