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?"
Johnson also has a track called "Dark Was The Night -- Cold Was The Ground," which, though mainly an amazing instrumental slide guitar piece (Blind Willie does some wordless moans), Beck was clearly referencing here when he sang "cold was the storm that covered the night." Finally, Johnson has a song called "You're Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond," a pretty stark song about needing someone to save you when you die (Jesus). Beck's liner notes include a line about "bank note a bond," though I'm fairly certain he doesn't sing it.
Anyway, 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.
So when he started writing a blues song here, Beck very easily slipped in some Blind Willie.
Besides Johnson though, Beck's "Soul Of A Man" references hollow logs ("Hollow Log" of course, as well as the song prior to "Soul" on Modern Guilt
), letter bombs, fires, bones, doctors, gris-gris (a voodoo thing, also made famous by the singer Dr. John), and goldenrod (a medicinal flower). I mean, just listing these things and you can see what many of them have in common: cures.
Behind all these references though is a bit of a song. (Personally, I do believe it gets a little lost, but it's there.) The first verse has the singer feeling hollow, empty, unwelcome. And then come all the cures. How do I fix this, he wonders? 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 it's mysterious unknowability. Someone answer me if you can! Beck similarly drops it as THE question. Nothing else matters, and the question lingers over the rest of the images.