Image via Rolling Stone

Harry Styles, the one with the long hair from One Direction, is the latest band member to go solo and thus inevitably cover Rolling Stone.

The profile, presented as “a year in the life” of Styles as he ambles toward his solo debut due in May, reveals the artist as a curious soul with a tendency toward darkness, though he still looks every bit the schoolboy on this cover. At the risk of choosing sides, Styles comes across as less dull than his former bandmate Zayn Malik on paper. He’s a compelling counterpoint to Zayn’s pointedly sensuous air of mystery, which often feels wrapped in artifice.

With his solo music, Styles says, “I didn’t want to write ‘stories.’ I wanted to write my stories, things that happened to me. The number-one thing was I wanted to be honest. I hadn’t done that before.” It’s what every artist says but something tells me this kid is gonna be alright.

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Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe, the film director and former teen journalist, writes:

For many, 2016 was a year of lost musical heroes and a toxic new world order. For Styles, it was a search for a new identity that began on that bench overlooking London. What would a solo Harry Styles sound like? A plan came into focus. A song cycle about women and relationships. Ten songs. More of a rock sound. A bold single-color cover to match the working title: Pink. (He quotes the Clash’s Paul Simonon: “Pink is the only true rock & roll colour.”) Many of the details would change over the coming year – including the title, which would end up as Harry Styles – but one word stuck in his head. [“Honest”]

 Throughout the profile, Styles speaks like he could be 23 years old (as he is) or 56. His self-awareness is a good sign, paired with the fact that he’s actually a thrilling performer by himself, as we saw on last week’s Saturday Night Live when he sang his delicately morose rock song, “Sign of the Times.” 

“Most of the stuff that hurts me about what’s going on at the moment is not politics, it’s fundamentals,” he says of that song. “Equal rights. For everyone, all races, sexes, everything...  ‘Sign of the Times’ came from ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last time.’ The song is written from a point of view as if a mother was giving birth to a child and there’s a complication. The mother is told, ‘The child is fine, but you’re not going to make it.’ The mother has five minutes to tell the child, ‘Go forth and conquer.’”

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Clearly, he put some thought into this. Like many other artists, Harry wants to retain a little mystery—“With an artist like Prince,” he tells Rolling Stone, “all you wanted to do was know more. And that mystery—it’s why those people are so magical! Like, fuck, I don’t know what Prince eats for breakfast. That mystery ...  it’s just what I like.” Which sounds like an earnest, if improbable, goal. For fans who love him, fortunately, he’s not a complete wall, at least in this interview. He speaks wistfully about his first love, and with clarity about his ex, Taylor Swift:

“When I see photos from that day,” he says, “I think: Relationships are hard, at any age. And adding in that you don’t really understand exactly how it works when you’re 18, trying to navigate all that stuff didn’t make it easier. I mean, you’re a little bit awkward to begin with. You’re on a date with someone you really like. It should be that simple, right? It was a learning experience for sure. But at the heart of it – I just wanted it to be a normal date.”

On the songs she allegedly wrote about him:

“I mean, I don’t know if they’re about me or not ...” he says, attempting gallant discretion, “but the issue is, she’s so good, they’re bloody everywhere... I write from my experiences; everyone does that. I’m lucky if everything [we went through] helped create those songs. That’s what hits your heart. That’s the stuff that’s hardest to say, and it’s the stuff I talk least about. That’s the part that’s about the two people. I’m never going to tell anybody everything.” (Fans wondered whether “Perfect,” a song Styles co-wrote for One Direction, might have been about Swift: “And if you like cameras flashing every time we go out/And if you’re looking for someone to write your breakup songs about/Baby, I’m perfect.”)

“She doesn’t need me to tell her they’re great. They’re great songs ... It’s the most amazing unspoken dialogue ever.”

And on their breakup:

“Certain things don’t work out. There’s a lot of things that can be right, and it’s still wrong. In writing songs about stuff like that, I like tipping a hat to the time together. You’re celebrating the fact it was powerful and made you feel something, rather than ‘this didn’t work out, and that’s bad.’ And if you run into that person, maybe it’s awkward, maybe you have to get drunk ... but you shared something. Meeting someone new, sharing those experiences, it’s the best shit ever. So thank you.”

There’s a point in the piece where Styles shows what seems, again, like earnest concern about the underestimation of young women and their music IQ:

Asked if he spends pressure-filled evenings worried about proving credibility to an older crowd, Styles grows animated. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.

Later, he responds to a comment Zayn made previously about One Direction music not being his cup of tea: “I think it’s a shame he felt that way,” he says, threading the needle of diplomacy, “but I never wish anything but luck to anyone doing what they love. If you’re not enjoying something and need to do something else, you absolutely should do that. I’m glad he’s doing what he likes, and good luck to him.”

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Hey, this kid is fine and we’re gonna like his music. Read the full profile here.