Attention Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and Dan Fogelberg: lock up your slick mid/late ’70s production values, because The Kinks are gonna ape the hell outta them.
Well by 1976, RCA had just about had it with The Kinks: six albums of diminishing returns, both commercially and critically, and several outright flops. Once the contract was honored, The Kinks shuttled over to Arista, who made it clear that all that sort of theatrical hokum was NOT gonna carry over to their new home. So Ray — probably a bit disillusioned and deflated by the lack of acceptance of the band’s “theatrical period” — wrote and produced the first album of the new contract in a more conventional, contemporary style.
The resulting album Sleepwalker is easily the most contemporary Kinks album released thus far. It sounds very 1977, and why shouldn’t it? To stay commercially viable, the band had to adapt to the times; being theatrical auteurs yielded both poor sales and critical derision.
Sleepwalker ended up being the band’s biggest commercial hit in years, which isn’t really saying much, given that most of their recent output had disappointed. While not a massive seller, it garnered some radio airplay and peaked at #21 on Billboard (with the title single just breaking the Top 50).
Life On The Road kicks the album off, and its a solid rocker. Already the tonal shift is in full effect. This isn’t theater, nostalgia, or flights-of-fancy. This is pure mid/late 70s AOR, Ray Davies invoking more than a touch of Jim Steinman. Mr. Big Man continues in that vein, with some more contemporary sounding keyboards and funky bass work (provided by Andy Pyle, replacing John Dalton who left the band during production of the album). It’s a slow, sleek number that builds into loud, crashing choruses. I like the song but for some reason it seems oddly-fitting, perhaps maybe a tad overproduced. This is the type of tune that might have benefited from a “less is more” approach.
The title track (and album single) Sleepwalker is a fun little jam and an enjoyable listen, but nothing really spectacular. Unfortunately, the embarrassingly maudlin and overwrought ballad Brother is momentum killing. At 5:29, it seems about 15 minutes longer while listening to it. Juke Box Music is a welcome reprieve, uptempo and earnest sounding with a good hook. Some good dual guitar work going on.
Sleepless Night turns the vocals over to Dave, which always makes me a little nervous because his strained vocalizations often get on my nerves. The song is OK though; a fairly decent pop-rocker that doesn’t do a whole lot but does fine for what it is. The keyboard-driven opening to Stormy Sky sets a mellow, smooth vibe for a mellow, smooth song that merges Ray’s earnest songwriting with that “sanded-down” late 70s feel. Something to listen to on 8-track as you’re out on your sailboat for a quick weekend jaunt to Catalina. Robbie Dupree, eat your heart out. Pure 70s Yacht Rock, and why not? If you’re gonna take a tack from the prevailing trends of the day, might as well do a good job out of it.
Full Moon is a strong song, with great hooks, memorable harmonies, and a lush, layered production. Listen to that driving piano work. Definitely one of the album’s better tracks. Finally, the album winds up with Life Goes On, which is another good song, but something about it feels so — so middle-of-the-pack in the grand scheme of things. No one will ever confuse it top-tier Kinks, or even 2nd-tier Kinks.
Which, in a way, kind of sums up Sleepwalker to me. Ostensibly, it’s an OK album, albeit a heavily dated one. No more so than any mid/late 70s catalog title, but what we love about The Kinks is how the quality of the material can rise above the popinjays and mumbo-jumbos. For example, Arthur could only have been made in the late 60s but the material feels entirely timeless. You could say this of any of the “Golden Era” albums. Sleepwalker, on the other hand, feels firmly rooted in its moment. Perhaps the band needed to put their toes in the water before they jumped in, because Sleepwalker feels like they’re holding back. Waiting to see how they’d be received by the masses, or perhaps by themselves. The album ends up sounding both extremely competent and solid, but also restrained and cautious. It’s good, but it’s not essential by any means