Summer had made her name the previous decade as the most successful female artist of the disco genre, releasing a vast selection of hit singles and albums on Casablanca Records. During this period however, Summer had felt that the label had exploited her and made her portray a sexually orientated image ("The First Lady of Love") with which she never felt comfortable. The label had also taken over other elements of Summer's personal life, to the point where she felt she had no control over her life or career. Having come out of a period of depression and rediscovering her Christian faith, Summer had made the decision to break away from Casablanca and file a lawsuit against them. After the lawsuit was eventually settled, Summer became the first artist to be signed to the newly established Geffen Records.
At that time, disco was starting to experience a backlash. Rock and New Wave music had started to become more popular, and people were starting to feel that the original "edge" to the disco culture had now vanished and that it had become a "safe product". Others felt that the disco scene had become too associated with drugs, while others resented its exclusivity (doormen would often expect people to look or be dressed a certain way before being allowed into a disco). By 1980, banners reading "disco sucks" were seen everywhere and disco records became flops. Fans wondered what direction Summer (who was seen as "the Queen of disco") would now take. Her previous full-length album, Bad Girls, had combined elements of rock, soul and R&B with the disco sound, so it had become apparent that she had already evolved in some way. Some artists continued with the disco sound despite the backlash, including Lipps Inc. with the huge summer of 1980 hit Funkytown and Diana Ross with the Chic produced disco flavored "Upside Down" in the fall. Summer however, decided to leave the disco sound behind and The Wanderer turned out to be a very rock and New Wave-influenced affair. The album was co-written and produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who had produced the vast majority of Summer's hits since their partnership with her began in 1974. The production for the Wanderer was rushed, Geffen wanted to get new product out because of Casablanca plans to release Walk Away another Greatest Hits Collection. We would have like to do more tweaking, and have more time for production. But we just had to let it go, said Harold Faltermeyer; about the recording of the album.
Tracks such as "Cold Love" and "Nightlife" consisted of a very strong rock sound, the former gaining Summer a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. Other songs such as "Looking Up" and "Breakdown" embraced a dance/rock sound. Summer's new rediscovered Christian faith was documented in the gospel song "I Believe In Jesus", for which she also received a nomination for Best Inspirational Performance. As a child Summer had sung in gospel choirs, so this song was a chance for her to go back to her roots.
The album peaked at number 13 on the US Album Chart - selling 600,000 US copies - and the title track hit number 3 on the US singles chart. However, two follow-up singles - "Cold Love" and "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'" - were not successful and barely reached the Top 40. The album and its singles attained limited success on the UK charts. None of the singles cracked the UK Top 40.