Like its predecessor, 2012’s Rispah, you could describe the third album by the south London trio the Invisible as a record inspired by stark intimations of mortality. Four years ago, it was the death of frontman Dave Okumu’s mother midway through recording that provided the emotional fuel for the trio’s songs. Patience, meanwhile, is haunted by Okumu’s own first-hand brush with death: after he suffered an electric shock while playing on stage in Lagos, his life was apparently saved by bassist Tom Herbert removing the guitar from his hands. The former incident provoked what Okumu called “a love letter to grief”: 50 minutes of music that was moving, intense and occasionally harrowing, woven through with samples of traditional Kenyan spirituals recorded at his mother’s wake. The latter, on the other hand, has brought on “a deeper understanding of the value of life”, and a desire to capture “joy and gratitude for being alive”.
One might pull a face at this kind of talk, particularly on clocking that Patience contains a song called – uh-oh – Believe in Yourself. These are tough topics to essay in pop without slipping into motivational-poster cliches. But as it turns out, Patience is a far more complicated and intriguing album than that. Lumbered though it is with the kind of title Jessie J might happily slap on a song, Believe in Yourself is about as far from a blandly uplifting anthem as it’s possible to get, short of turning to funereal doom metal influenced by the work of Wormphlegm and Mournful Congregation: it’s an uncertain, vaguely unsettling mesh of woozy, synthesised drones that occasionally sway off key, retorts of stammering bass, vocals drenched in spectral reverb and agitated, prickly funk guitar.
So it goes with the rest of the album, on which nothing is quite as it initally seems. You can certainly see evidence of a more positive outlook in Patience’s nine tracks: the rough musical edges that jutted out behind Okumu’s vocals on Rispah have been sanded down and there’s a lot more in the way of obvious pop choruses, several delivered by guest vocalists, among them Okumu’s production clients Rosie Lowe on Different and Jessie Ware on So Well.
On first listen, the songs glide easily by. The Invisible’s famed eclecticism is still very much in evidence: driving post-punk basslines share space with the kind of staccato guitar and synth riffs you might have found on an early-00s R&B hit, and where rhythms betray the influence of jazz, with the beats and accents never quite landing where rock-trained ears might expect them to. But in contrast to some of their earlier work, the genre-blending never feels self-conscious, as if it’s straining to impress you with its eclecticism. Instead, the sound is hazy and understated, the overall mood one of comforting, small-hours warmth, the hooks strong enough that it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to visualise them being played on Radio 1.
It’s only on closer inspection that you notice how dense, complex and strange the music on Patience is. Save You is teeming with sound. There are cut-up vocal samples, endless layers of guitars masked with different textures, gusting clouds of atmospheric electronics, eerie Theremin-like tones, and noises that sound like the squealing synthesisers that decorated D-Train’s 1981 hit You’re the One for Me and sundry other early-80s boogie tracks. Sometimes, it feels genuinely avant garde: Best of Me is based around a sample of Okumu muttering “never, never, ever” that swims in and out of time with the rest of the track. Sometimes noises just appear for a second then disappear, never to be heard again: a snatch of what sounds like marimba, a sudden stamp of marching feet.
This sort of thing should, by rights, sound tricksy and fiddly and maddening, but it doesn’t at all. There’s something hugely impressive about making music this intricate seem so fluid and enjoyable, about making an album that somehow manages to simultaneously function as both an uncomplicated, summery pleasure or something rich, deep, absorbing and occasionally baffling. Look beyond the Anna Calvi-sung chorus and the popping funk bassline of Love Me Again and there’s a moment about 90 seconds in when Okumu’s vocal unexpectedly splinters into a multitude of overlapping voices, tightly woven together: massed harmonies, falsetto, one so thickly coated in effects it’s barely recognisable. You listen to it and wonder how anyone arrived at the idea that this song should suddenly do that, struck by the delightfully confounding sound of pop music made by genuinely original minds.