There’s no mistaking that dynamite voice, but Tones And I’s first full-length record Welcome To The Mad House reveals many layers to the Australian singer-songwriter. Tones alone penned every lyric, with each one reflecting a specific feeling or significant moment in time. This spans songs written pre-’Dance Monkey’ fame, in the lows of lockdown and during intense periods of grief and depression. As is her speciality, she threads these memories together using a killer combination of infectious melodies, slick electro-pop beats and earworm choruses.
The Welcome To The Mad House album artwork is reminiscent of a kitschy Goosebumps novel, which makes sense when the record opens with the title track, an eerie and bouncy number that would sound at home on a creepy carnival ghost train. Although fun on the surface, the lyrics leak a darker tale of the unrelenting bullying Tones has experienced since she was shot into the limelight. “The life you had before, that’s never gonna change but we all love to hate you and we’ll tell you every day,” she sings menacingly.
The album takes a deep dive into the piano ballad-turned-bop ‘Lonely’, a heartbreaking recount of her battles with mental health and struggles to accept help. The song spotlights her vocal chops as she effortlessly swoops between complex runs and spitfire spoken-word to throaty belters, all on the one track. On ‘Dark Waters’, she continues the open-book confessions as she describes the feeling of being caught in a tide that’s ripping her away from her true self. “I’m never happy with enough until I’m drowning from it all,” she roars over a towering wall of strings on the bridge.
These solemn moments are balanced out by plenty of fun and dance-worthy reprieves. ‘I Won’t Sleep’ is a sleazy party jam with a Jack-in-the-box beat that whirs beneath warped vocals. And the bubbly ‘Westside Lobby’ is a tongue-in-cheek nod to how far she’s come despite a constant barrage of criticism. She pats herself on the back with one hand while giving a quick-witted middle finger to naysayers with the other. “My song went number one in over thirty fucking countries and I’m sorry if that offends you, my dear,” she claps back with a laugh.
No doubt you’ve already found yourself singing along to the irresistibly catchy chorus on ‘Fly Away’, the record’s first and standout single. Written in the thick of quarantine from her home in Melbourne, it’s about chasing your dreams and facing the harsh realities when you finally reach them. ‘Cloudy Day’ is another electrifying showstopper on the album. It’s an uplifting track inspired by a mantra from a friend’s late mum: “On a cloudy day, look up into the sky and find the sun”. Tones carries the message through the chorus, her vocals buoyed by a gospel choir and triumphant horn section.
The record also features Tones and I’s very first love song ‘Just A Mess’, which is surely a world record for an already chart-topping pop star. The breakup banger fuses powerful piano with electronic rhythm. Meanwhile, the lyrics juggle the universal conundrum of needing to let someone go and facing the fear of being alone. “I know that I’m just a mess and you’re just the person that changed my life,” she booms on the chorus. With her heart on her sleeve, it’s an undeniable highlight on her debut.
Tones and I also wrote a lot of the album while processing the passing of her good friend T. Although she initially struggled to write anything shortly after, she ended up paying tribute through three distinct tracks. On ‘Sad Songs’, she wrestles with finding solace in sombre music while also fighting the urge to feel nothing at all. Meanwhile, ‘Fall Apart’ is its own heartbreaking farewell that opens with an acoustic piano melody. “I’ve been sitting all night thinking ‘bout the times spent with you lately,” she croons.
The album closes with the final tribute ‘Bars’, a quickfire rap track that throws back to humble beginnings and simpler times. “Left it all behind in the house up the hill that I once called mine. Left the keys in the van from 69 to the motherfucking madhouse. King T vibes,” she raps. It’s a playful toast to her friend and the perfect way to close the door to the madhouse.
Like a funhouse mirror, Tones And I’s debut record twists and warps to reflect the experiences that have shaped her. While she’s already a world-renowned pop powerhouse, ‘Welcome to the Mad House’ further flexes her sincere songwriting, penchant for contagious hooks and unparalleled vocal prowess.
‘Welcome To The Mad House’ is out today. Just this week, Tones And I announced she will be getting back to her roots, packing up the van and setting off to busk around the country on a national busking tour.