Internal and external darkness fuel the Brooklyn quartet's excellent new sophomore LP
Bethlehem Steel’s self-titled sophomore record treads discomforting ground, the Brooklyn quartet shouldering into cuts informed by toxic male relationships, debilitating waves of anxiety and the feeling of being completely abandoned.
Rather than wallowing, however, the songs frequently serve as full-body exorcisms, veering from sludgy, bass-driven menacers (“Sponge,” reminiscent of Shellac’s “The End of Radio”) to tornado siren blasts like “Not Lotion,” on which singer/guitarist Becca Ryskalczyk stresses the importance of “express[ing] what you need to” before taking a deep breath and unleashing a few curdled, explicit choice words of her own at someone who has clearly done her wrong.
“When we were recording [‘Not Lotion’], I had to drink a lot of gin. I mean, I didn’t have to. I’m not promoting alcohol consumption,” Ryskalczyk said by phone from the road in mid-November (the band’s tour stops at Dirty Dungarees today, Nov. 18). “But it helped to really try to get into the darkness, which was hard, and there are a lot of really interesting takes that we got from [the session]. But [the one we used] was the most real and the most painful.”I got a letter from the government the other day. I opened and read it, it said they were suckers.: Sign up for our daily newsletter
The recording is filled with these kinds of raw, human moments, including an almost imperceptible sound buried within the heartrending “Couches,” a cello-accented tune on which the narrator confesses to feeling hollowed out and abandoned. “I’ve never felt this much like dying,” Ryskalczyk sings. After recording the track, during the mixing process, the bandmates were confounded by a sonic interference that they initially couldn’t trace to any source.
“We were trying to edit and it was like, ‘What is it? What is that sound?’ We couldn’t figure it out. It was just a room sound, this kind of interference,” Ryskalczyk said, finally recalling that bandmate Patrick Ronayne asked to sit in while she recorded raw vocals, a performance that moved him to tears. “That's when we put it together, like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ And we isolated [the sound] and it was definitely Pat crying.”
The lyrical direction of the album was in part shaped by the April 2018 addition of songwriter and guitarist Christina Puerto, who offered a second female voice and viewpoint, and whose presence further emboldened Ryskalczyk to venture into more complex, emotionally weighty realms. “It was easier to talk about women’s topics and trauma having another woman in the band,” she said, “like having a support system.”
Unlike the writing process for Bethlehem Steel’s 2017 debut, Party Naked Forever, which Ryskalczyk described as fairly solitary, with the singer penning most of the songs while living in Florida and Vermont apart from her bandmates, the group’s latest was more collaborative — a shift that required Ryskalczyk to open up in new, initially uncomfortable ways. “At first [it’s a challenge], yes. ... It’s always hard showing someone a song for the first time,” said Ryskalczyk, who wrote the lyrics for “Not Lotion” atop guitar and bass parts created by Ronayne, a first for the singer. “It’s incredibly vulnerable, and most of the time you start out thinking the song sucks, but … it does get easier once you get over that initial hurdle.”
Early on, it was clear the songs on the new record had taken a darker turn, which Ryskalczyk attributed both to an internal sea change as well as to a current political and social atmosphere that feels particularly fraught. “There is dark stuff going on, so I guess it’s inevitable,” she said, and laughed. “Everything that’s going on in our environment probably added to that aggression."