Zuma was the first album released after the famed Ditch Trilogy, comprising the albums Time Fades Away, and On the Beach, and Tonight's the Night. Young wrote songs in Zuma during his time living on Sea Level Drive in Malibu, California. "Through My Sails," originally entitled "Sailboat Song," derives from the aborted late 1974 sessions with CSNY, featuring the quartet on vocals.
The melody and lyrics of "Don't Cry No Tears" are partially derived from "I Wonder", a song Young wrote in high school which appeared in his Archives in 2009. Young has claimed during a show in 1996 that he'd also written "Cortez the Killer" in high school while suffering "Montezuma's Revenge." The song ends with a fade out because the original cut stopped abruptly due to a power surge, and a final verse Young had written was not recorded. Young's reaction to hearing of this was, "I never liked that verse anyway", and it has never been performed live.
"Danger Bird" interpolates sections of an unreleased song relating to Young's breakup with Carrie Snodgress called "L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys", specifically the line "'Cause you've been with another man / there you are and here I am."Lou Reed once told an interviewer that he felt Young had become a "great guitarist" during this period, specifically citing "Danger Bird" as an example. "Pardon My Heart" was originally intended to be released as part of Homegrown.