As someone who has authored sprawling and ambitious concept albums like his masterful “69 Love Songs” and the deeply biographical “50-Song Memoir,” the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt has never struggled with writing inspiration and execution.
That was, until, the onset of the pandemic.
“This has been the longest fallow period of my songwriting since, I don’t know, my childhood,” said Merritt, whose band will play two shows at the Palace of Fine Arts on April 25 and 26. “I didn’t adapt at all to the pandemic. I spent most of my time nibbling on some edibles to help ease the anxiety.”
For years, Merritt has honed his craft in the crowded barrooms of Manhattan, penning wry musings amid the bawdiness and lusty vitality provided by fellow drinkers with outsized personalities. With the pandemic robbing him of this creative goldmine, Merritt retreated to his apartment, unable to process the world at large.
“It was that kind of combination of not having the environment to write and also not feeling inspired by what I was witnessing,” said Merritt.
It wasn’t just the suffering that stymied Merritt. During the pandemic, the Magnetic Fields lost two former band members. In December 2020, LD Beghtol, a key contributor to “69 Love Songs,” passed away. Less than a year later, Susan Anyway, who sang vocals on the first two Magnetic Fields albums, died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease.
“I remember texting LD to let him know that our friend Joe had died of COVID,” said Merritt. “And I didn’t realize that when I was texting him, LD had already died. So yeah, it’s been a little difficult to process things, when everyone you know keeps dying.”
Although he won’t divulge many details about upcoming projects, Merritt said he has slowly returned to songwriting for a potential follow-up album to 2020’s “Quickies,” a collection of songs that all clocked in at less than 2 ½ minutes (some were barely more than 30 seconds).
“I never tell journalists about my record plans,” said Merritt. “But I certainly hope to have some songs written by the end of the year.”
Any news songs will be a welcome addition to Merritt’s storied catalog. For more than 30 years, the Magnetic Fields have adeptly delved into the murky universe of love, commitment and the prickly nature of relationships. Merritt is as equally comfortable composing a paean to the wonders of fidelity as he is writing a cynical tune about the inevitable heartbreak that comes when you dedicate yourself to another.
He has also never shied away from channeling grief into this songwriting and the recent deaths of Anyway and Beghtol —along with the countless casualties from COVID and the war in Ukraine — offer him ample opportunity to explore those avenues. However, those kinds of weighty topics do not lend themselves to be crafted quickly, even for someone with the capabilities and prowess of Merritt.
“It takes a while for those songs to develop,” said Merritt. “You can’t rush them.”
For now, Magnetic Fields fans will have to wait for the next effort while enjoying the band’s considerable discography, which recently got a fresh look with the 30th anniversary reissuing of “House of Tomorrow,” the group’s 1992 EP. On the current tour, Merritt and the band will be playing an occasional song or two from that EP, alongside tracks from “Quickies” and classic albums such as “69 Love Songs” and “Distortion.”
Merritt said he was looking forward to putting the painful past few years behind him to focus on the current tour, a jaunt that will be highlighted by the two San Francisco shows.
“I actually think San Francisco is probably where we are the most popular in the United States,” said Merritt. “You guys just seem to get us for some reason.”
Recent events might have deprived Merritt of the haunts where he feels most comfortable, but at least he’ll be able to bask momentarily in the glow of a city that adores his band.
And who knows, maybe these shows will provide the spark for the next Magnetic Fields album.
IF YOU GO:
The Magnetic Fields
Where: Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon Street, S.F.
When: 8 p.m., Monday, April 25 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 26
Contact: (415) -855-1607, www.palaceoffinearts.org