Originally released in February of 1977, "Sleepwalker" was the first album the Kinks did for the Arista Records label which was founded, and at the time headed, by the notorious record industry mogul Clive Davis. This switch from RCA to Arista coincided with Ray Davies backing down from the seemingly endless string of Broadway-flavored, horn-laden concept albums he'd been writing in favor of a more-or-less straightahead rock 'n' roll approach.
You've probably read about how Arista Records wasn't going to accept any "Preservation"/ "Soap Opera"-style concept albums from the Kinks. However, in characteristic Ray Davies fashion, he wanted to have his cake and eat it too, so he devised "Sleepwalker" as a loosely thematic album about sleeplessness/ restlessness, a theme which can be detected just by glancing at some of the song titles such as the title track, "Sleepless Night", and "Full Moon".
And this is a really solid, satisfying album. Although these years on Arista Records also tend to be referred to as the Kinks' "arena rock" years, "arena rock" really is not an accurate description for the music on this album. Granted, the group does rock out pretty hard on many of the songs here, but the group demonstrated that they hadn't entirely forgotten the concept of rocking out on the previous album "Schoolboys In Disgrace", and "Sleepwalker" is hardly a move toward Kiss-style territory.
As usual, Ray has sole writing credit for all the tracks on the album. And there are a bunch of great ones. "Mr. Big Man" is a raging rocker about a person who acheives fame and then proceeds to blow off the people who helped him get there. "Juke Box Music" has really curious lyrics about not taking music too seriously and how it's "only there to dance to", but regardless, it's an absolutely infectious rocker with a simple-but-irresistible riff, catchy melody, great Dave Davies lead guitar work, well-placed synthesized strings, and neat interplay between Ray and Dave's vocals. The bluesy "Sleepless Night" has some silly, seemingly unfinished lyrics, and Dave's lead vocals are a little shaky, but it's irresistible anyway, thanks to more great Dave Davies guitarwork, cool organ, and the sheer catchiness. "Full Moon" is a soaring, emotional song that builds up arrestingly, with Ray's vocals starting off gentle and working their way up to a wonderfully from-the-gut delivery.
There are more quality tunes as well. The album-opening story-song "Life On The Road" starts off mellow before transforming into an uptempo rocker with with some clever and funny lyrics. The title track is also fun and catchy, although somewhat underdeveloped. The album-closer "Life Goes On" is quite amusing with its sardonic lyrics about how we must carry on no matter how bad life gets, and yet the simple and memorable "life goes on and on and on" hook of the chorus is uncannily uplifting, which is seemingly what Ray was going for with the song.
Only a couple songs are considerably dull. One is "Stormy Sky"--the song does have atmosphere, but it's underdeveloped in terms of the songwriting and feels like filler. Even worse is the strained, 5+ minute ballad "Brother" which aims for a directly spiritual quality, and is loaded up with painfully predictable lyrics.
Another comment I can't help but make is that many of the songs here are strikingly similar to earlier songs. "Mr. Big Man" is extremely reminsicent of 10cc's "The Wall Street Shuffle", and some of Dave's lead guitar bits make the song very reminiscent of "Layla" as well. The title track sounds a lot like the Steve Miller Band's "Take the Money and Run" (even if "Sleepwalker" is the better song), and it also has a somewhat annoying "Dear Prudence"-style ending. The ending of "Full Moon" references the Kinks' own "Johnny Thunder". In other words, the album kinda doubles as a virtual name-that-tune fest.
Velvel Records reissued "Sleepwalker" in 1998 with great sound quality, superb liner notes, and bonus tracks. Velvel have reissued it again in 2005 in hybrid SACD format, and thankfully, the bonus tracks remain intact, because they add additional interest to the proceedings--"Artificial Light" is forgettable, and "Price of the Punks" is pretty amusing, but a bit ham-fisted and overdone; however, the moody "The Poseur" is arresting, as is the engaging ballad "On The Outside" (present in 2 slightly different versions). (Velvel have subsequently reissued "Sleepwalker" again in 2005 in hybrid SACD format with the bonus tracks intact.)
Overall, a highly satisfying disc that ranks as a must for any Kinks fan.