Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Donna Summer's "The Wanderer" 30 Years Later

The QH Blend has widely discussed the year of 1980 in terms of its connection to the dissolution of disco. Some acts survived, many more struggled. Donna Summer symbolized a phoenix from the ashes of a musical movement in which she was its figurehead. The Wanderer, her eighth album, was a bigger gambit for Summer. The creative freedom earned on this long player allowed Donna Summer to become the pop presario she always hinted at.

After the triumphs of Lady of the Night (1974) and Love to Love You Baby (1975), Summer climbed through the rest of '70's on the back of several conceptualized works that synthesized black dance and European pop into an art called "disco." By 1979, Summer had achieved dominance commercially and exemplified that her transition from the underground to the mainstream hadn't soiled her artistic flow.

On the horizon was a looming anti-disco sentiment that sat next to Summer's discontent with her image. Summer was ready for a cleanse. Gracefully sealing off her glory days with On the Radio: Greatest Hits in '79, Summer left Casablanca Records and jumped aboard Geffen Records. The label swap marked a experimentally rewarding period that encompassed her second decade.

The Record
Never a slave to the conventional
"9 to 5" black female vocal prototype, Summer always explored wider options with her voice. Longtime partners in production Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte had planted the seeds for Summer's rock revolution with cuts like "My Baby Understands" and others on Bad Girls.

The Wanderer, another concept record, dealt with a woman attempting to flee from the mundane. She gets swallowed by the big city and love, but emerges spiritually reborn. The journey mirrored Summer herself who had just become a "born again Christian" at this time.

Lean, but filling, The Wanderer downplayed any  beats and swirling orchestras for clean, keen guitars, enthralling programming and snappy brass. The title song, with its spazzy character driven vocal, was wacky, weird, and wonderful. Said character singing stayed in effect on each song, making the narrative of the record richer. Summer siren sang along the roiling tidal wave of ambience that was "Grand Illusion." On "Cold Love" and "Stop Me" her voice burned with passion and defiance. She was as soulful as any drab belter and tackled tracks like the gospel shaded "I Believe in Jesus." Summer was taking no prisoners with what her voice could achieve on this album.

The musical map of the LP was strewn with rock externally, but the pop ("Looking Up") and soul lines ("Breakdown") didn't hide. Prose wise, Summer maintained her tale telling with "Running For Cover" and "Who Do You Think Your Foolin'," both identity searching anthems.

The Impact
The Wanderer was an immediate critical hit when released on October 20th, 1980. Rolling Stone  ranked the record in second place in a year-end tally behind Bruce Springsteen's The River. Stone's final assessment gifted The Wanderer with a total of four stars.

Pop culture site Pop Matters Christian John Wikane wrote of The Wanderer in April of 2007 stating:

By 1980, Donna Summer had amassed enough currency in her career to take chances. In October, Summer astounded audiences with The Wanderer, a decidedly rock-oriented album that marked Summer’s liberation from the image-making machinations of her previous record company, Casablanca, and from the grueling celebrity lifestyle that sent her to the brink of suicide. (The album also inaugurated David Geffen’s eponymous record label.)

Harry Langdon’s album cover photograph for The Wanderer depicts Summer clothed in layers of scarves and leggings, sitting atop a black bench with suitcase nearby, looking very much "the wanderer.” With one hand casually nested in her perfectly coiffed hair, Summer’s gaze is direct and provocative. “I dare you to listen” is the implied message.
Audience reception was understandably split. Summer's primary audience, a white, dance-pop crowd were still stepping to remaining throes of disco's last stomp. Summer's colleague, Diana Ross' "Upside Down" and its parent album diana (1980), represented that mentioned, accessible end of days abandon. Those that did respond saw the greatness Summer's broader pop. Being a black woman in a predominantly non-R&B sound on The Wanderer was confusing for the few black fans Summer did have.

"The Wanderer," Circa 1980

All of these conditions reflected in the commercial outcome, a gold seller with a U.S. Top 10 hit for the title track and two U.S. Top 40 hits ("Cold Love," "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'"). Summer, the first black woman to win a rock Grammy the year before with "Hot Stuff" was nominated for a rock Grammy in 1980 ("The Wanderer") and 1981 ("Cold Love").

Summer continued to maintain her muse throughout the remainder of the 1980's up through her recent release, 2008's CrayonsCrayons patterned itself close to The Wanderer in tone, evidence that pop at its best is an energetic, evolving force. The Wanderer stands resilient in the face of labels, influential and vital. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Like majority of Donna Summer's 1980's work, The Wanderer is out of print and expensive to obtain. I luckily snatched up a mint copy for $38 in 2007, the prices tend to ebb and flow ranging anywhere from $50-$70 for a CD copy at online music retailers.-QH]