Even as a staunch Kinks supporter, I was beginning to have my doubts. Although the band’s following has grown steadily since they made it into the Seventies (by the skin of their teeth) with “Lola,” they seemed to have peaked with Muswell Hillbillies. Ray Davies seemed hopelessly stuck on a thematic dead-end street (perhaps he had started believing all those notices about personifying the “voice of the little people”). But Sleepwalker — the first Kinks album since Lola that’s unencumbered by either a horn section or female vocal chorus — is a clear-cut triumph both for Davies and the band.
A few of these songs smack of the self-righteousness that’s hindered Davies’ recent writing; but the beautiful “Stormy Sky,” in which clouds become a symbol for romantic conflict, and “Full Moon,” a scary tune about madness and loss of self-recognition, are among his best efforts. The recurrent themes are fear, depression and failed utopianism; in “Life Goes On,” we are warned that “life’ll hit you when you least expect it.” Yet in the end, there always remains a faint glimmer of hope: “Take that frown off your head/’cause you’re a long time dead.” “Juke Box Music,” which seems strangely set apart from the rest, is the best song here, a rocker about a woman whose entire life is spent living inside the story lines of her favorite records. It should be a pathetic song, yet Davies has us tapping our feet, singing along.
The Kinks’ playing on Sleepwalker is easily their most powerful since Lola. Dave Davies’ aggressive guitar work is pushed into the forefront, and the intensity of his lead work seems to rouse the entire group. One is continually reminded just what a fine and forceful band the Kinks can be as those ethereal falsetto backing vocals, so long dormant, rise again like the spirit of “Sunny Afternoon” and “Waterloo Sunset.”