Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 21, 2024

Lullabies and candy jars: Faye Webster’s Underdressed at the Symphony is tired and sweet

By NOËL DA | March 9, 2024

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PAUL HUDSON / CC BY 2.0

In Undressed at the Symphony, Faye Webster combines vulnerable, emotional lyrics with bold humor and quirky instrumental elements to create an indie project like no other.

We know the genre well by now: indie sweethearts who sing witty love songs and lush rage anthems, their voices turning everything into honey. Think Clairo, beabadoobee, Laufey, mxmtoon and, on occasion, Taylor Swift. They are girly, sugar and spice, but their songs are just as much about being sharp as they are about softness. They live in the intimate pocket of a bedroom, but their lyrical world extends much farther. For most of her musical career, Faye Webster has been no exception to this category, her music conjuring images of unlaundered bedsheets, lullabies and absent boyfriends. 

Webster’s new album, Underdressed at the Symphony, was released last week, and its shyness contributes to this genre. The title itself is based on the singer’s experience of visiting the symphony orchestra last minute after a breakup, feeling underdressed both literally and emotionally. Yet the album carves out new territory, straying away from Webster’s standard model of angsty-sweet love songs and featuring more instrumentals and experimentation. There is just enough cohesion to pull everything together, but there is also fresh texture and color in each track. By the end, she has built a house to shelter this part of her life, and each song feels like a new room to walk through. 

Actually, some rooms feel more like corridors, intentionally stalling their way to the end. At least two of the songs, “Thinking About You” and “Lifetime,” start with just a few lines of lyrics before entering into a long repetition of one line: “I’m thinkin’ about, thinkin’ about you” and “in a lifetime,“ respectively, over and over again while the band plays in the background. In “Thinking About You,” with its steady groove and rhythm, Webster’s repetition serves as an extension of the beat — just another smooth sound dropping into the melange. “Lifetime” feels more delicate and meditative, each repetition of “in a lifetime” stretching the song into a long hallway of piano accents and quiet reflection.

Sometimes, this sparseness is a way for Webster to avoid more confessional moments. She has a reputation for being reserved, and the choice to sit within the space of extended instrumentals feels like a manifestation of this trait. In “Wanna Quit All the Time,” for instance, she admits, “It's the attention that freaks me out / Overthinking in my head again / I'm good at making shit negative / Right now I hate the color of my house.” Then the refrain, “I think I’ll figure it out, uh huh,” kicks in. The rest of the song is nothing but that and the suave instrumentals, which fade out to silence for a few seconds before returning for the final minute of the song. 

The title track has the same structure, Webster confessing that she is “crying to songs that you put me on” before trailing off into repetition and instrumentals. Here the buttery guitar and piano licks, while noteworthy in their own right, also serve as cushioning for Webster’s vulnerability, wrapping up the rawer stuff in instrumental cellophane. 

Less tender, though similarly protective, is Webster’s use of voice coders and quantization. The synthetic twist on her vocals appears throughout the album, but most intensely in the two tracks right in the middle, “Feeling Good Today” and “Lego Ring.” In these songs, she avoids exposing the sensitive lyrics by filtering them through the voice coder, making it much harder to take them seriously. A bit of Webster’s signature humor comes through here, her irony embedded not in the lyrics but in the audio mixing. 

The album is also meant to be fun. In “Lego Ring,” which features Webster’s old friend Lil Yachty with a totally unexpected rap segment, the otherwise soft aura of the album is transformed into almost childlike bursts of sound and color. The artist even made an Animal Crossing-style game to accompany the song — play Faye Webster’s Singsongrama here. Her sentimentality suddenly becomes lively in these moments, like little candy jars which are interspersed throughout the album. Even songs with little to no voice effects, like “eBay Purchase History,” are bubbly and fun in their elevator-style jazzy sound. 

In “But Not Kiss,” it feels like the pushing and pulling that Webster does across the album — between guardedness and vulnerability, modesty and extroversion — is condensed into the dynamics of one song. She builds up tension in the first line, “I want to sleep in your arms,” before breaking into a bloom of instrumental noise in the next, “but not kiss.” Her careful control over the levers of soft silence and heavy sound is at work in this song, making use of breaks with the finest technique.

Faye Webster knows the genre well by now. She has seen it all, felt it all and learned to both express and strategically conceal her emotions in her music, so she ends the album with “Tttttime,” a reflection on the tiredness and boredom of adult life. This time, the refrain that will lead off the song is just one word: “t-t-t-t-t-t-time,” each “t” ticking along with a bass guitar. It is slow, it is about mundanity, and yet Webster is able to present all this through a sweet melody, wrapping up the album with warm familiarity the way that she does best.


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