Faye Webster – Underdressed At The Symphony

Faye Webster is most at home in her own head. Every song on her fifth album puzzles over the way her brain works, how it worries over certain details, how it fixates on certain unpleasant feelings, how it works so often against her. She remembers the smell of her old apartment on “eBay Purchase History”, and she thinks she’s figured out why she’s so self-conscious on “Wanna Quit All The Time”. She tries in vain to evict an ex from her brainpan on, well, pretty much every song. That’s not to say she’s an introvert – Webster is active in the Atlanta arts scene as a photographer and collaborator, and that album title suggests she does get out of the house occasionally – but her songs are all set deep within her own mind. Her primary subject is the tangle of needs and desires, fears and doubts, epiphanies and delusions contained therein.


These new songs are all invitations into that headspace, and to her credit Webster doesn’t tidy up for company. The mess is the whole point. It’s a fascinating place to be, largely because she finds so much meaning in everyday observations and mundane ironies, in the small moments many other songwriters might overlook. On “Wanna Quit All The Time” she admits that she’s “overthinking in my head again” and that she’s “good at making shit negative”, but she ends the song with a stray observation: “Right now I hate the colour of my house”. What sounds like a punchline becomes a gut-punch as she realises how little control she has over any aspect of her life.


Webster refined this balance of humour and pathos on her earliest albums in parallel with an idiosyncratic blend of country and R&B, and both became distinguishing signatures on 2021’s I Know I’m Funny Haha. That album enjoyed a long life thanks in some part to TikTok; Webster doesn’t even have an account, but that didn’t stop fans from soundtracking their own clips with snippets of her songs. Months of sold-out tours and a meteoric increase in streaming does take its toll on her psyche, however. “It’s the attention that freaks me out,” she declares, as though she could give up parts, but not all, of the music-making enterprise. Webster sounds like someone who would be mapping her brain even without an audience.

After recording her previous albums in Atlanta and nearby Athens, Georgia, Webster and her trusted backing band decamped to Texas, namely to Sonic Ranch Studios, where Bon Iver and Fiona Apple, among others, have recently recorded. The change of scenery gave her a new perspective on the place she calls home, but it also allowed the band to cut loose a bit. Tightened by long months on the road, they respond sensitively to her vocals, especially on the opening track, “Thinking About You”. At six-and-a-half minutes, it’s the longest song Webster has ever released, and most of it consists of her singing the title over and over again. Her voice remains steady with each repetition, allowing the musicians to elaborate on motifs and ideas: Matt Stoessel and Nick Rosen uncork increasingly jazzy riffs on guitar and piano, respectively, while drummer Charles Garner and bassist Bryan Howard test the elasticity of the song’s breezy groove.

These familiar elements coalesce into something new for Webster: more than country or soul, Underdressed At The Symphony recalls the plushness of ’70s pop and ’60s exotica, but without any nostalgia and therefore without any irony or distance. That allows “Lifetime” (the album’s aching heart) and “But Not Kiss” (its most dramatic heartbreaker) to sound unself-consciously beautiful – which is all the more surprising given that Webster admits to such extreme self-consciousness. By contrast, “My Baby Loves Me Yeah!” and “Lego Ring” (featuring a vestigial verse from Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty) ride simple yet effective grooves, as she yearns for something beyond what she has, even if it’s just a plastic toy.


On Underdressed At The Symphony, less is more. Less is everything. Restraint is crucial to these songs, not just in the band’s careful arrangements but in the way Webster emphasises expressiveness over vocal power. She is, in addition, a minimalist songwriter who uses as few words as possible to conjure emotions too messy or too contradictory or simply too painful to state outright. “I want to sleep in your arms but not kiss,” she confesses on “But Not Kiss”, an unusually uncommitted breakup song about getting close to an ex but not too close. Or, conversely, about pulling yourself away in increments, as though a gradual separation might spare you the pain. Rarely does overthinking a problem sound so inviting or so productive.