Lucy Dacus’ ‘Thumbs’ delivers devastating emotional storytelling

Photo of the single "Thumbs" by Lucy Dacus
Matador Records/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Before this month, “Thumbs” was a song that indie rock singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus only played live, requesting that the audience not record or video the performance. Respecting Dacus’ wishes, the fan favorite remained off the internet and even inspired a Twitter account, “Has Lucy released Thumbs yet?” The secret is now out, as Dacus, who is also a member of the band Boygenius along with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, released “Thumbs” on March 9. The song is Dacus’ first release since her collaboration with Hamilton Leithauser on “Isabella” in Oct. 2020. 

“Thumbs” begins immediately with Dacus’ vocals paired with a haunting synth that continues throughout, creating a somber tone. For much of the stripped-down track, these are the only two sounds we hear: Dacus’ voice and sparse synth chords. 

According to Dacus, the song is about a day she spent with a friend during her freshman year of college. The first verse sets the scene as Dacus seems to be singing about a friend reconnecting with an absent father. 

In the chorus, Dacus sings, “I would kill him/ If you let me/ I would kill him/ Quick and easy.” For a ballad, these words might seem violent and harsh, but they are tempered through the delicacy of Dacus’ vocals. That this speculative violence is birthed from love and care for a friend makes the sentiment vulnerable and heart-wrenching. 

She takes this hypothetical murder even further with the lines, “I lovе your eyes/ And he has thеm/ Or you have his/ ‘Cause he was first/ I imagine my thumbs on the irises/ Pressing in until they burst.”

The strength of “Thumbs” is Dacus’ penchant for storytelling, which brings forth an intimate specificity to the lyrics. She allows emotions to become hauntingly real through devastating details. Within Dacus’ masterful writing, rage, empathy and love seem to merge into a singular emotion as she sings, “You two are connected by a pure coincidence/ Bound to him by blood, but baby it’s all relative.” 

While the lyrics themselves are wrought with emotion, Dacus’ vocal performance is contrastingly calm, showing enormous restraint — which is mirrored by the sparse arrangement of the song itself. Although this choice removes any distraction from the lyrics’ weight, the instrumentation lacks a certain dynamism that could have made for more cohesion. Beyond some additional mellotron sounds, the arrangement stays pulled back and repetitive, leading to slight monotony. 

Dacus’ conclusion is devastatingly simple: “You don’t owe him shit even if he said you did.” With this line, she manages to perfectly capture two very specific pains — that of a child whose parent has failed them, and that of a friend who must watch a loved one accept a hurt they do not deserve.

In “Thumbs,” Dacus’ vocals and writing shine, but instrumentally, she is capable of more. “Thumbs” is no longer a live show secret, but Dacus’ listeners are better off for it — the song’s lyrics warrant multiple listens for full appreciation of the artist’s storytelling ability.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].