Being alone brings up the question: are you on your own or are you all alone? On his new album Tompkins Park, Jack Symes confronts this question head on, and provides a timely soundtrack to the uncertainty that's been in the air over the past year. Depending on the answer to this question, more questions arise that could send you into a tailspin of anxiety, lead you to an immense amount of self-discovery, or maybe even both.
Symes starts the album off with the title track, which sonically sounds like the musical encapsulation of the feeling of wandering around New York City as the track consists of the light, but steady strums of the acoustic guitar, interspersed with electric guitar, trumpet, and percussion. The lyrics contrast this as their tone seems to be a bit sullen, "I was stranded at Tompkins Park / I was wasted, locked my keys in the car / So I stepped into the corner bar / Never been there so alone before." Having written many of these songs upon his arrival to Manhattan, he conveys the anxiety and loneliness that accompanies moving to a new city where you don't know anyone and have nothing pressing to do, while still being open to self-discovery as he asks how he can come to love the fear that defines him.
The second track diverts from the songs that were written in New York. "I Need to Be Alone" was written during the beginning of the pandemic last year, while quarantining at his parents house. The song seems to be an ode to anxiety, as the chorus seems to serve as a calming mantra, "I need to be alone / (Breathe in, breathe out)," while the verses almost seem to be a call and response of sorts, as the second serves as criticism to the anxious thoughts in the first. The accompanying video, provides listeners with a visual of what it's like to have anxiety loom over you until you're eventually asking for your mind to leave you alone.
We begin to hear more about the discoveries that Symes has made on the following three tracks, "Wait," "Baby, My Baby" and "Illinois." Featuring Eva B. Ross, "Wait" shows that he's learned that control in relationships can stifle the other person, "Cause when she sings she's still she's running water no more." Ross' vocal adds a certain dimensionality to the song that makes us feel like Symes is on his own, compared to the prior tracks in which it felt like he was alone. "Baby, My Baby" seems to be dedicated to a prior love of his – San Francisco. He comes to realize his heart is no longer with the city and the song becomes his final goodbye, horn section and all. The nostalgia that follows on "Illinois" has both Symes and listeners realizing that you can't go home again, as he sings of the moments in a previous relationship that he wishes he could re-experience.
On "What A Wonderful Party" and "The Story of Jim Jones" Symes seems to lean more political. He points out the triviality of grandiose parties in comparison to protesting for equal rights on "What A Wonderful Party." He goes on to detail the gossiping that ensues, as it seems as though everyone is trying to hide their flaws behind their image of respectability. The groove of the song almost feels as if you were at the party with Symes playing a game of telephone in which the line of people never ends. Symes gives us a history lesson on the man who conducted the Jonestown Massacre on "The Story of Jim Jones." He reveals to listeners that there are people you know who have villainous spirits that you would never suspect due to blind love as he sings, "The man you heard of, but do not know," as you would never want to believe that someone you love was capable of doing something horrible.
"Prom Song" recenters things a bit as it takes listeners back to the dance floor of their own proms, as Symes has written a dreamy, folk song perfect for slow dancing. He gets even more vulnerable on "Overwhelming, as he pulls back the curtain on a new love, with only electric fingerpicked guitar accompanying him. The reverb on his vocal makes it that much more emotive as he sings, "Scream out my name / Whisper you want me/ Your grip says the same / The damage is done." The eleventh track, "Good Morning, New York City" serves in direct contrast to the first, as Symes has seemed to learn that he and Manhattan thrive best in tandem, instead of in opposition, similar to most relationships.
Symes has seemed to make many discoveries about both himself and the world on this record, however "Why, Why Not" seems to symbolize that he has so many questions left to ask, and so many answers left to find. As the sixth track on the record it's an intermission between the answers, in which he gets to ask a question. But as the acoustic version is the twelfth and final track on the record, it seems to say that he will never stop seeking. Throughout this record it has seemed as though Symes has felt that he's both on his own and all alone, but maybe that's the answer. To feel both is to be alive, and Symes has created a body of work in which that duality can exist divinely.