A new beginning – Donna Summer was certainly ready for one when she signed as the first artist on David Geffen’s upstart record label in 1980. She had clashed and litigated with her longtime home of Casablanca Records over her artistic direction, and on a personal level had become a born-again Christian. Her first album for Geffen would build on her success at Casablanca but confidently introduce a new Donna Summer, as well. The Wanderer, her eighth studio album, became a top 20 success in the U.S. and yielded a top five hit on the Hot 100 with its title track. In recognition of its 40th anniversary, the Crimson label and Driven by the Music have issued a 1-CD, hardcover book-style edition similar to the recent release of A Hot Summer Night and the 30th anniversary edition of Another Time, Another Place. This release follows the 33-CD career-spanning Encore, released earlier in 2020.
While Summer continued her relationship with songwriter-producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte as well as arranger Harold Faltermeyer, The Wanderer was no mere retread of her groundbreaking Casablanca recordings. Bad Girls, for which she had won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance – Female (for its single “Hot Stuff”) had solidified her move from disco to a fusion of R&B, pop, and rock with a strong dance element.
That element is highlighted on the 40th anniversary edition which – in a complete flip of the usual script – opens with three bonus tracks: Figo Sound remixes of “The Wanderer,” “Looking Up,” and “Nightlife.” (The latter is in a Radio Edit, though the full-length version of the remix is curiously absent.) In addition to the expected beats, the Figo Sound remixes reshape the original recordings with a steely electronic sheen. The album as heard in 1980 then begins on Track 4 with “The Wanderer,” a cool yet restless shuffle and one of the five tracks written or co-written by Summer. (Moroder, Bellotte, and Faltermeyer all were heavily involved with the songwriting, as well.) The pulsating “Looking Up” would have fit more comfortably on Bad Girls with its vivacious expression of rebirth. “I’m comin’ back to life,” Summer euphorically asserted over an irresistible uptempo, guitar-led groove. (Trivia: Bill Champlin, of Sons of Champlin and Chicago, joined Tom Kelly and Carmen Grillo among the background vocalists on this powerful track.)
An uncredited male vocalist echoes Summer on “Breakdown,” Michael McDonald-style, while Jeff “Skunk” Baxter provided the searing guitar solo on the tale of infidelity sung from the perspective of the unrepentant cheater – a Bad Girl, indeed. She’s even earthier on the driving “Running for Cover,” with its dramatic time signature changes, furious Steve Lukather solo, and versatile Champlin-Kelly-Grillo backgrounds. A perky saxophone contrasts with the rock energy of “Stop Me,” sung by Donna as if her life depended on it. On each song, Summer would utilize a different portion (or portions) of her impressive range; for the spacey “Grand Illusion,” she was at her most ethereal. “Nightlife” showcased her supple voice at its grittiest as she conjured its vividly seedy milieu.
How to follow the smash “Hot Stuff,” one might wonder? Pete Bellotte revealed to Christian John Wikane in the liner notes here that the answer was with “Cold Love.” Yes, the hot-to-cold shift was intentional as the latter song echoed its predecessor in its rock attitude and style. Lukather and his axe were again called on for its aggressive, riff-based sound. There’s a different urgency to “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’,” a jab at Hollywood hypocrisy. Bellotte composed the song in a Michael McDonald vein but the wry delivery of the finished track was all Summer’s; she clearly savored each word of the catchy chorus with able support from Champlin, Kelly, and Grillo.
Yet the most personal track on The Wanderer may well be its closing track, Summer’s self-penned, upbeat “I Believe in Jesus.” The producers were initially resistant to the on-the-nose declaration of her newfound religious beliefs, but – like everything else she recorded – Summer invested it with sheer conviction, leading Bellotte to tell Wikane that he now finds it “the best song Donna ever wrote.” Its touching declaration that “I’m going to heaven by and by/’cause I already been through hell” brings to the fore the emotional undercurrent running through The Wanderer, of Summer’s personal and artistic rebirth and readiness to begin a new, more contented era. “I Believe in Jesus” was recognized by the Grammy Awards with a nomination for Best Inspirational Performance while Donna received another nod for “Cold Love” in the rather different field of Best Rock Vocal Performance – Female.
Four more bonus tracks sequenced after the original album round out the disc – two from Le Flex (“Grand Illusion” and “Nightlife”) and a further pair from Figo Sound (the full mix of “The Wanderer” and an extended version of “Looking Up”). Not uncommon where modern remixes are concerned, one’s mileage will vary, although all of the remixes honor their central component of Summer’s voice. Le Flex’s otherworldly treatment of “The Grand Illusion” makes the most sense from a creative standpoint as the song already featured a dreamy, futuristic soundscape. It only took forty years for mainstream dance music to catch up with it. Le Flex’s throbbing “Nightlife,” too, gives it a sleek makeover for the present day.
The attractive hardcover book package of 24 pages contains Wikane’s comprehensive essay drawing on author interviews with Pete Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer, Carmen Grillo, Tom Kelly, Bruce Sudano, and the late artist, as well as an insightful conversation between Crimson’s Michael Neidus, Le Flex, and Figo Sound’s Stefano Colombo in which they explain the decisions and inspirations behind their remixes. The book concludes with a section of excerpts from original reviews of the album and full lyrics. Collectors should hold onto their 2014 deluxe edition of The Wanderer, as its two bonus tracks (the edited versions of “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin'” and “Cold Love”) haven’t been retained for this iteration. Phil Kinrade has mastered.
The Wanderer represented a new start for Donna Summer; today, it remains a high watermark in her discography. The 40th anniversary edition doesn’t offer any new, earth-shattering content from the original sessions, but the classy remixes and detailed liner notes should make it a worthwhile purchase for Summer devotees.